Expansive Poetics – (John Ashbery & Purposeful Disjunction)

The climax of that method (applying Abstract Expressionist techniques to poetics) is a poem called  “Europe” by John Ashbery, which was published in Big Table in 1961 or so, and then reprinted often, because it was his attempt completely to dissociate the language from representation, and to make something like (Willem) de Kooning or  Jackson Pollock, Jackson Pollock more, with a scattering of words on the page arranged in an odd way, floating around on the page, so that you would not be able to join the words. You’d have to go from one word to another with whatever spark the word had ignited as you read it. Are you familiar with that poem.. “Europe” by (John) Ashbery?

John Ashbery – Water Mill, Long Island, NY, 1963 – Photo by John Gruen

John Ashbery – Villa Madama. Rome. 1963


Arshile Gorky – Study For “The Liver Is The Cock’s Comb”, 1943, crayon and pencil on paper, 19 x 24 3/4 ins – The Museum of Contemporary Art. Los Angeles

That was the big transitional poem. About the same time (William) Burroughs was going into “cut-ups”, Ashbery is in Paris writing this poem, “Europe”. It’s in one of his books [Editorial note – it’s in  The Tennis Court Oath (1962)]. And it was his vortex transition – going from one mode – as “The Instruction Manual”, which is a kind of literal description of a mind/mental trip down to Guadalajara and back to his office, starting in his office, going to Guadalajara, and coming back, but still literal, except a literal description of a daydream – this was eliminating even daydream, and just looking at words as objects and putting them on the page, without attempting to do anything more. Of course, it comes out of Surrealism– and Dadaism– and Futurism– and the early, almost-scientific, experiments with language at the beginning of the century


And, actually, to the extent here that this school – the Kerouac School (Naropa) is taught by (includes teaching by) Dick Gallup, and, somewhat, by Michael Brownstein, and Anne Waldman and Ted Berrigan, (John) AshberyRon Padgett, and others, that influence (of complete freedom and liberty of words) is a main teaching here, including (the) “list poems” that Anne (Waldman) makes up, or “cut-ups” that are assigned for homework. It’s a very good method of pump-priming, for people who feel that they are so serious that the poems must have prophetic historic importance and actually make heavy sense to President (Ronald) Reagan, that (a) method of irresponsibility is a very liberating exercise and practice, because it allows you to do anything you want and it also allows much more open sensibility and free play of your unconscious and quixoticism and whimsy and imagination.

A lot of people arrive at in in different ways. In a way, Helen Luster [sic – one of the Students in attendance] arrives at it through synchronicity, (or, via) observation of synchronicity, or crystal-gazing. (William) Burroughs arrives at it, sometimes, through cut-up. (Jack) Kerouac arrived at it through the fast speedy rush of his composition , accepting anything that came into his mind  (so he’d get things like “seizures of tarpaulin power“). I rely on the awkward accidents of writing down my mind to get weirdo phrasing, kind of a raw, clunky phrasing that’s strange. Gregory (Corso) attempts purposely always to seize the opportunity in the next thought (he has one thought, (say) – “I pump him full of lost time”- he’ll immediately (then) try and get something that doesn’t fit right, like “I pump him full of lost watches”, [Editorial Note – Allen is quoting from Corso’s poem “Birthplace Revisited”] that ‘ll turn out to fit right.

Gregory Corso

(but) Gregory (Corso), originally, way back in (19)59, wrote a tiny essay, which we put at the beginning of Gasoline, where he mentioned that his method was discord – that is, if he finds himself going in one direction in a thought, rather than get corny and obvious and venal, or prosaic, or literal, or unpoetic, he’d actually try and turn it inside out and get the opposite, and yoke the opposite together). I think I was talking about this (while talking) about haiku, in the Spring – that it’s, also, the relation between disparate objects (dissimilar objects) juxtaposed without comment for the mind to make the connection. And that led to a little conversation about some interesting wild phrasing.. like Gregory (Corso) used opposites, like a line of (W.B.) Yeats that I’ve mentioned – “out of the murderous innocence of the sea” (from “A Prayer For My Daughter”), when you put “murderous” and “innocence” together. Of course, that’s, philosophically, quite literal – that’s to say, the sea doesn’t intend to kill anybody, it’s quite innocent. And (then) it turns out it’ll murder you if it puts its paw over your head when you’re dunking it in a typhoon – “out of the murderous innocence of the sea”.

And my own example, from my own work, was hydrogen jukebox”.  And Gregory (Corso)’s motto or slogan for freedom of poetic imagination was, (in) 1959, “fried shoes”, or “lost watches”, or “penguin dust”, or “pie glue”, or “radiator soup”, (which you can find in his poem, Marriage) – (Andre) Breton (from “Free Union”) – “My wife with the sex of an iris/A mine and a platypus/With the sex of an alga and old–fashioned candies/My wife with the sex of a mirror/My wife with eyes full of tears” –  I don’t know if you noticed but I got the line for “Kaddish” from this method, for the part IV of “Kaddish” which is – “O Mother/What have I left out/O mother/what have I forgotten/O mother/farewell/with…a long black beard around the vagina/farewell…/with your fingers of rotten mandolins/with your arms of fat Paterson porches…” – Then I got a great line (the others are just sort of routine wooden Surrealism) – “with your belly of strikes and smokestacks” (because my mother has a background in radical movements, Communism, Paterson, New Jersey, and took part in general strikes there, so “with your belly of strikes and smokestacks”), and when I wrote that I cried because I realized there was an intersection of unconscious Surrealist method and completely literal historical accounting. So I thought that was maybe the best line in that whole section of “Kaddish” – with your belly of strikes and smokestacks.”

And then it ends, “with your eyes/with your Death Full of Flowers”  – “With eyes that are purple armor and a magnetized needle” (that’s Breton) – Imagine, with magnetized needle eyes)] – “With eyes of savannas/With eyes full of water to drink in prisons/My wife with eyes that are forests forever under the ax” –  (and that’s kind of traically beautiful – describing the aging of his wife’s flesh) – “My wife with eyes that are the equal of water and air and earth and fire” – (And that gets hermetical. And of course those eyes are composed of earth, air, water, and fire. So it’s literal, philosophically) –  So that’s quite an amazing poem and turned on many poets.

Juxtaposing Smith and Pollock.

[Audio for the above can be heard herebeginning at approximately twenty-five and three-quarter minutes in, and continuing to approximately forty-three-and-a-half minutes in] 

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