Thanks to L. Helm for his comments. Some comments on his comments.
Meta-comments, if one follows Grice in calling Ashbery’s ‘experience of
experience’ “meta-experience. Helm notes:
“I have never managed to appreciate Ashbery.”
At one point, Ashberry would say, ‘let go.’ “Appreciate” has an interesting
pragmatics. Cfr. “I have never managed to appreciate cauliflower.” “Well, let
go. It’s not your thing.” Ashberry writes to the effect that you either enjoy a
poem, or you don’t – never mind managing or failing to manage to appreciate or
enjoy it! Helm: “[A]lthough I haven’t given up the hope of doing so.”
Well, perhaps he is not your thing.
Helm: “Not so very long ago I bought Ashbery, … Poems, the Library of America
This a locus classicus, in that it (“apparently,” Popper would add) was the
first case when The Library of America decided to publish the oeuvre of a
living person. I wonder what the previous editors had in mind (alla: “Dear
reader: mind we’ll only publish the oeuvre of dead people.”).
Helm: “I also have a handful of commentaries, none of which has inspired me to
like [John Lawrence Ashbery – the surname is Anglosaxon, from Derbys., and it’s
strictly “Ashbourne”] more than I do.”
As Byron once said, maybe those commentaries are in need of commentaries! (“His
explanation is good, except that it requires an explanation.”)
Helm: “Maybe my problem is that I am not willing to spend the time to make
I think Ashbery will agree! Either “p” is accessible or it ain’t. E.g. Grice is
accessible to me. It is of course pleasing to make Grice accessible to someone
who doesn’t find him so. But I wouldn’t bother much, either, being so many
OTHER philosophers my co-conversationalist may find ‘accessible’ – I hope it’s
not Spinoza! The greatest Griceian paradox is whether Ashberry was accessible
to hisself! I would suggest perhaps in part he was not!
Helm: “But I agree with what he is depicted as saying in the following.”
Helm goes on to quote from Ashbery hisself: “Ashbery: “What [my oeuvre is] is
[…] the privacy of all of us, and the difficulty of our
Which – when I read it – reminded me of Rupert Brooke. In one of his letters –
cited by Hassal – he recommends his addressee: “Never mind UNDERSTANDING my
oeuvre. Just _feel_ it!” I think Ashbery is too much focused – and thus being
reductionist, in a way – when he sticks with ‘thinking’. It makes him almost
Ryleian – after the English philosopher who was obsessed with the verb ‘to
think’ and the Rodin statue!
As for “the privacy,” as used by Ashbery, Grice would grant that it’s
tautological that Ashbery is private! Indeed, ‘private’ is a military label, as
in one of my favourite songs ever: “Private Tommy Atkins”! The opposite, that
Ashbery is ‘public,’ sounds otiose, if not vulgar!
Helm goes on to quote from Ashbery hisself: “ Ashbery adds: “And in that way,
[my oeuvre is], I think, accessible if anyone cares to access [it]” Skeptical
of the standard narratives of literature, Ashbery keeps to a *personal*
seems to [those who have accessed his oeuvre], as he once wrote of Frank
O’Hara, “entirely natural and available [i.e., er, accessible] to the multitude
of big and little phenomena which combine to make that unknowable substance
that is our experience.””
Which is back to Ashbery’s obsession with “experience of experience”
(“meta-experience,” in Grice’s parlance). Note the redundancy of “big and
little phenomena.” Grice would say that ‘big’ cancels ‘little’ and vice versa.
Ashbery might just as well stick with phenomena _simpliciter_ and leave it at
Helm concludes his interesting commentary: “I have thought while reading
[Speranza’s] notes, is there any point in my past where I wished I had made a
different choice so that I could be like the famous poets of today. The most
critical event in that regard would have been not to marry and start a family
at the age of twenty. Had I not married, I could have afforded to go on and
get my PhD and teach some place.”
Incidentally, I don’t think Ashbery got it – but he did get marry, too! I don’t
think Helm should focus too much on them [sic] “famous poet.” It reminds me of
Cole Porter’s ironic reference in “Let’s do it (Let’s fall in love)”:
“Most famous writers, in swarms do it,/Somerset and all the Maughams, do it.”
-- Of course, that’s a Griceian fallacy if ever there was since surely Robin
Maughmam is what I would _hardly_ call a ‘famous’ writer, but more of an
‘infamous’ one, if you axe me!
Helm concludes: “But I ran out of money half way through my M.A.”
For the record, at Oxford, that’s the way to go – “only the poor,” Arnold says,
“learn at language” – and getting a PhD – or DPhil strictly – is in Oxford
considered as applying to the ‘clever’ – and ‘clever’ is a bad word in Oxford.
Helm: “[… A]nd was discouraged by the behavior of some of the professors I was
still in contact with (while I worked at Douglas Aircraft Company in order to
pay my bills). Thus, after a few years I reconciled myself to staying in
aerospace. I was good at engineering and there was always time to crank out a
poem or two during the day.Thus, thinking of my career as an engineer who has
written and still writes poetry and comparing it to the biographies I have read
of poets who have gone all-in to be POETS, I have remained happy with my
Good for you! And for the rest of the humanity. (I never used “Good for you!”
which to me triggered the implicature – “if not to any body else” – hence my
cancellation of that unwanted implicature. Popper would say that ‘unwanted
implicature,’ unlike ‘unwanted child,’ is an oxymoron).
Helm: I have never read a biography of a poet and thought, “I wish I’d done
Which is very good. It involves what Popper calls a counter-factual. Popper
argued that if, say, Helm WOULD have done other wise than he did, he would not
be “our” Helm. And counterfactuals are unverifiable for Popper, but not good
things, either – i.e. they are not falsifiable, either, alas.
Helm turns back to the Popperian-Gricean keyword of ‘accessibility’ used by
this journalist interviewing Ashbery: “And as regards accessibility, if by some
chance my poetry made it into a posthumous volume a hundred or so years from
now, I’m sure the editor would have no difficulty explaining who Susan, Ben,
Jessica and Duffy were and footnoting explanations of occasional factual
obscurities. Which is to say, that while I am not an experimenter like Ashbery
who has written poetry in many different styles, I have pursued . . . what
perhaps should be called psychological events.”
I like that.
Helm: “I write best when I have somehow, such as in dreams, ACCESSED [emphasis
Speranza’s] something I have been dwelling on at a subconscious level.”
Helm: “Although not everything is grist for that mill.” -- Or Grice to the
Mill, as Grice would prefer punning on John Stuart Mill.
Helm: “In the last dream I can recall, I was walking along a country road.
Next to it was a cornfield and in the cornfield adjacent to the road was a
path. I planned to get off the road and go up the path, but I saw some military
or police up the path. One policeman was in the prone position pointing a
rifle in my direction. However they weren’t after me and I turned around to go
back the way I came. After walking a short distance a young man of eastern
European extraction walked up to me and handed me a handgun in a holster. I
told him I wasn’t the police. He needed to go up the path to find them. But
he waved his hands as though to say it didn’t matter and kept going. At that
point I became concerned about my my problem. If I turned around in order to
give the gun to the police, perhaps I would become a “person of interest.” At
the very least I would be taken in to get with a sketch artist so I could give
them a description of what this fellow looked like, but I already in my dream I
had forgotten that. So should I throw the gun into the cornfield? No, my
fingerprints are sure to be on the holster. I stuck the gun into my belt and
walked on while I wrestled with what to do with it. I considered taking it
home and burying it, but that would only work if I never gave the police
“probably cause” to dig up my yard; which I probably wouldn’t, but still it
would be something I would be constantly worrying about, and I continued
worrying about it as I woke. I haven’t used the above dream in a poem, nor do I
This reminds me of a song in a film, “That’s the stuff that dreams are made
of.” The melody, curiously, is a good one. And the refrain is catchy. The verse
mentions Jung which relates to Helm’s previous reference to the sub-conscious.
For the record, here in the ps. is Ashbery’s first lines to the ‘convex mirror’
piece – that got Ashbery in ‘the pantheon,’ as the New York times irreverently
As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises. A few leaded panes, old beams,
Fur, pleated muslin, a coral ring run together
In a movement supporting the face, which swims
Toward and away like the hand
Except that it is in repose.