Note: I wrote this “welcome” blog post to my TU Dortmund students for a course on The New York Poets, March 2014.
I admitted in our first meeting that this is a new kind of course for me. I have never taught a class committed entirely to poetry or to the twentieth-century. My other offering this term, a cultural history of anarchism in the United States, is much more typical (that is, if I’ve been around long enough to have a “type”). I entered a graduate program in literature with an uneven bundle of interests: Walt Whitman, Marx/Hegel, labor history, and not making a fool of myself. I’ve come to love poetry, but it was a long, stubborn struggle. Sure, I was “a Whitman guy,” but the sometimes embarrassing truth of Whitmanites is that it hardly qualifies you as a “poetry person.” Of course, we’ll talk all about Whitman’s genre-bending next week.
But I found the research required to put this course together a pleasurable side project to my Whitman work. I got to pursue my secret fondness for O’Hara and his poetry, and to sound out the muted political aspects of a mid-century avant-garde movement generally celebrated for its playful humor, surrealist experimentation, linguistic spontaneity, and bohemian celebrity.
“These Lacustrine Cities,” an early work from John Ashbery, features all of the trademark surrealist trappings of the “New York School” (remember, a term they rejected) with its disorienting shifts in syntax, register, address, time and space. Yet, Ashbery’s poem also explores a question that concerned the most profound philosophical writings of Hegel and Marx: what ability does the individual have to act in or change the world within the larger processes of “History”?
In the opening lines, Ashbery forges the poem’s framework of affect, by linking opposed feelings as the organic motor of civilization: “These lacustrine cities grew out of loathing/Into something forgetful, although angry with history.” Lacustrine, or “relating to lakes,” might remind us of the popular biblical tale of a post-lapsarian civilization — the reconstruction of humanity after the loathsome “flood.” It could also foretell a dystopian future (ala Water World), where human beings are punished with ecological crises and
forced to evolve. In either scenario, Ashbery makes clear that these disasters/opportunities “are the product of an idea: that man is horrible, for instance,/Though this is only one example.”
In a radio interview, Ashbery claimed the lake-dwelling peoples of Zurich as the inspiration for the poem’s subject. But even the prehistoric Swiss villages who are “something forgetful, although angry with history,” are only one historical example of the unending process of civilization as a “continual quarrel with the stage that came before it.” So what room is left for the individual actor? Are we doomed to perpetually rebuild our cities in a fit of anger at the latest flood?
This is where the dream-like aspects of the work begin to exert pressure on the narrator. The poem soon turns on its observing speaker and warns “Much of your time has been occupied by creative games/Until now, but we have all-inclusive plans for you.” These voices threaten to transform the fantastical environment into a desert, a sea, and finally a crowded urban space where the only air is “the closeness of others.” The speaker appears now to be only a character in the dreamworld of another, a victim of the chimerical machine known as History.
Then the poem’s final assertion, that “the past is already here, and you are nursing some private project,” could suggest an opportunity for action in the midst of the dream’s constrictive contours. The past is always with us, affecting present actions in ways we can’t resist or even comprehend. Perhaps, the “private project” nursed by the narrator is a stay against this mad fantasy: the poem itself.
The final verse begins: “You have built a mountain of something,/Thoughtfully pouring all your energy into this single monument.” The “mountain” created as the speaker surveys the fragmented and “surreal” landscape is “the monument” to imaginative energy that is “These Lacustrine Cities.” Sure, Ashbery constructs an entirely “Unreal City,” as literary critic Marjorie Perloff has illustrated, but it’s “indeterminate” framework promises a opportunity to the reader to create meaning out of disjunctive phrases and descriptions. This semester, let’s be sure that all of these strange and appealing “projects” don’t become so “forgetful.”