Readings in John Ashbery's <em>Some Trees </em>(1956)
A prominent feature of John Ashbery's debut collection Some Trees is the near ubiquity of classical and post-classical genre designations attached as titles to its poems. Among them appear titles such as "Eclogue", "Sonnet", "Meditations of a Parrot", and "A Pastoral". Neither does Ashbery hesitate to rehabilitate fixed formal kinds like the elaborate sestina in his poems. More than one critic has taken note of this phenomenon, but its presence has not been interpreted in the same way by all critics. Most, however, agree that it points to the overt formality of Ashbery's poems. But while John Shoptaw views it in light of the Ashberian canon only, and as an untypical element at that, Joseph Conte considers it to be an example of a more general interest among postmodern poets to "renovate Old World forms". According to Conte, Ashbery's distinctly renovating contribution consists in emptying old forms and genres of their traditional content in order to leave behind only their structural shell, whose meaning henceforth remains ‘indeterminate'. The aim of this paper is to take a second look at Ashbery's engagement with generic classification and fixed formal kinds in Some Trees. Significantly, Ashbery's poems were published at a time when the very concept of genre had more or less been eroded as a result of romantic and modernist literature's resistance to conventional genre labelling, but also when an increasing cultural influence of popular genres and post-war criticism's search for universal literary principles led to a revival of the term. In my paper I shall argue that Ashbery's return to old genres and forms in his early poems is to be read as neither a traditionalizing nor a modernizing gesture. Instead, they will be claimed to have a queer intermediary status. On the one hand, their presence seems to stand out as (re)tracings of genres that appear somehow residual or defunct in a post-modernist poetic context. On the other, they are made to "encode new [and queer, shb] meanings" (Anne Ferry) inasmuch as Ashbery, for instance, doubles and literalizes Dante's false etymology of the word ‘eclogue' (aig- and logos: ‘goatish speech'), thus widening the genre's pastoral code to encompass sodomistic desire among its classified meanings. In this way, I would propose, Ashbery's re-signifying of outmoded poetic genres and forms marks an attempt to articulate a nonconformist poetics that raises critical questions about the limits of classification in general, reflected through a strictly aesthetic investigation of why certain poetic species tend to get declassed and which content conventionalized poetic genres have included and excluded. In that perspective, such questions may then be construed as a queer poet's response to a dominant cultural climate in the ‘50s when the homosexual theme was deemed beyond normal hetero-normative classifications of gender identity.
Poetry; Queer theory; Desire; Genre; Gender
Main Research Area:
Poetry and the Trace: An International Conference, 2008