A Place Where No One Has Been, The Place Where Everyone Is
“Hotel Lautréamont”? Is such a title fair to an iconoclast? May we enter and leave such a place at our leisure? Even as Isadore Ducasse, the man-boy behind the name Lautréamont, entered it and later left it again, writing, “Poetry should be made by all”? Is Ashbery’s poetry really, as Donald Barthelme said, “an exploration of places where no one has been”, or is that a more fitting description of Barthelme’s own writing?
One might argue the opposite, that Ashbery goes to places where others are or have been. When asked “What types of diction are you aware of incorporating into your poetry?” the poet answered, “As many kinds as I can think of.” Indeed, he has become famous as a literary collagist. There remains too the famous difficulty of the poetry, making him the poster boy for those who detest anything nonlinear or non-narrative in poetry. He replied to this years ago, saying, “I don’t want to bore everyone with my versions of their own experiences” and “I don’t think my poetry is inaccessible…I think it’s about the privacy of everyone.” These ironies are apparent in the title of his fifteenth book, as an invitation to casually enter and leave the nomination “Lautréamont”, the pen name of a violent rebel who inhabited and hijacked the discourses of others, an outsider who performed his literary terrorism in order to empower the individual, the author of one work (and its appendix) which challenged all to participate in discourse and make it serve them, and yet this author has been marginalized as a mere Surrealist. And just as Lautréamont’s Maldoror has been used primarily to illustrate a tired old example of Surrealist writing, Ashbery uses the name as a cliche to be entered at one’s leisure for a time, as into a hotel room, to dally with certain other cliches. One might see the poems as so many rooms in the hotel.
Unlike Lautréamont, Ashbery does not do battle with the cliches. Haven’t the Lautréamont’s of modern history done a sufficient job of it already? Must poets fight the same battles over and over? Has no liberty at all been achieved for poets in the twenty-first century who would prefer not to repeat the same old tired modes of discourse? Ashbery has spent his life acting as though the battles are history. His basic attitude toward language is joy. It amazes me how many people have a problem with that.
And yet everyone who concerns herself with reading and writing at all comes to this place, this confrontation with language, whether they realize it or not. Everyone makes a fundamental decision about language: will their engagement with language be characterized by passive acceptance of established forms, or active creative involvement? Will they face the universe of language with fear or with joy?
Lautréamont asked, ‘Will you be the dupe of other peoples’ words, or will you be the master of your own speech?’ We know Ashbery’s answer. Hotel Lautréamont is an invitation to play. It’s like a book of recipes. Try one at home. Everyone should make poetry.
I think of a statement by Nietzsche from Zarathustra: “This ghost that runs after you, my brother, is more beautiful than you; why do you not give him your flesh and your bones?” Within the pages of Hotel Lautréamont Ashbery addresses a cadre of ghosts, whether as their voice, disembodied and atemporal (The Phantom Agents), as artistic spirits of the past and their audience (in the title poem), or as the ghost that walks both before and after you (Notes from the Air). This process of meeting your other self, your better self, involves meeting many others, whether historical or contemporary. In Notes from the Air sages, children, masters and strangers are all addressed in an oscillation between certainty and uncertainty, along with the recognition of this oscillation in history. The theme is presented in the first line: “A yak is a prehistoric cabbage: of that, at least, we may be sure.” Well, maybe it was once upon a time, but today we know a yak as a dumb, slow moving beast and as mindless chatter. Odd that these two definitions are so different, even opposites of a sort. What sustenance may be derived from this? The poem:
No more trivia, please, but music
in all the spheres leading up to where the master
wants to talk to you, place his mouth over yours,
withdraw that human fishhook from the crystalline flesh
where it was melting, give you back your clothes, penknife,
twine. And where shall we go when we leave? What tree is bigger
than night that surrounds us, is full of more things,
fewer paths for the eye and fingers of frost for the mind,
fruits halved for our despairing instruction, winds
to suck us up? If only the boiler hadn’t exploded one
could summon them, icicles out of the rain, chairs enough
for everyone to be seated in time for the lesson to begin.
Back to the yak. Wittgenstein has taught us that we make boilers according to calculations because doing so will reduce the chances of an explosion. And we make poetry in part because language is a vast city in which we are sometimes lost, hanging on two or more meanings of a word. We could go either way, and how are we to decide? For Ashbery, the pleasure of the music is his guide. For some this is all too abstract; they insist that all their words be attached to meanings that make perfect sense to them. But can’t language be beautiful the way music is beautiful? The music of Notes from the Air has a circular form, a spiral of oscillating certainty/uncertainty within a circle comprised of various moments: of self-recognition—sometimes coupled with a sense of accomplishment, other times of loss, moments of sleep during which one might be dreaming badly, and moments of cognitive construction—so-called certainty—happening on one’s very doorstep, “too near for you to see.” There is no tree (no treatise, no program, no poem) bigger than the night that surrounds us. What else can you do, what else should you do, what better use of your time, but to make music?
This seems to be the point of Ashbery’s repeated references to bad or inaccurate dreaming throughout the book. For Ashbery, as for Lautréamont, the Surrealist techniques, particularly automatism, are never ends in themselves. One must dream lucidly. The poems of Hotel Lautréamont are mobile temporary spaces in which to spend the night, wherever the poet happens to find himself. They are arbitrary in the sense that they mark the place the poet has constructed as a mode of temporary residence, and they could have been somewhere else. They are not the point, life is. But they can be visited again and again, as a room can be entered again and again, or a piece of music listened to over and over, if it has been recorded. Ashbery is at home with this poetry that has no home, and it is from here that he is able to say hello to some of his readers, some who seem to stand in a completely different part of the city than he. He also says goodbye in some of these poems. He knows they will take their place in history, as a trace or a recording of where he has been. Meanwhile he, like the rest of us, will be making preparations for the night.
[Statements by Ashbery are quoted from John Ashbery (Modern Critical Views) Edited by Harold Bloom]
Mark Kerstetter hopes to finish his novel and restoring his house one day. Until then he crams the spaces with poetry and plays blogger. He writes The Bricoleur and selects poetry for the arts and culture webzine Escape into Life.