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Ernesto Suarez-Toste

Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha

"The Tension Is in the Concept":

John Ashbery's Surrealism
[AJfter all it all came from Chirico and he was not a surrealist he is very
fanciful and his eye is caught by it and he has no distinction between the
real and the unreal because everything is alike to him, he says so, but the
rest of them nothing is alike to them and so they do not say so, and that is
the trouble with them [...].
(Gertrude Stein, Everybody's Autobiography)
Much has been written about the relationship between John Ashbery's poetry
and avant-garde art, particularly the painting of the Abstract Expressionists. Two
of the earliest articles dealing with this subjectby Fred Moramarco (1976) and
Leslie Wolf (1980)have considered not only Ashbery's use of objets d'art as
starting motifs for his poems but also the painterly quality present in much of his
poetry itself.' That the early-century collage aesthetic has been a major influence
on him is beyond doubt, and the most controversial issue nowadays is probably the
negative view still taken of his surrealist experiments, A number of annoyed critics
have trivialized Ashbery with the label "surrealist" whenever the poems in a
volume are unusually dark, displaying a curious fondness for fitting them into the
vague category of post-surrealist surrealism.^ For very similar reasonsand a
sense of automatism that Ashbery rejectsthis work has been praised by
Language poets.
Ashbery himself has shaken off the surrealist label with remarkable energy at
times, most likely out of boredom, and has certainly tired of the reductionist
connotations whichsadly enoughthe term has acquired. Ashbery, who lived in
France for ten years, had a first-hand experience of the country where surrealism
was born, and it seems clear that his privileged access to "the real thing" has
allowed him to appreciate in surrealism aspects that are neglected by the general
public. We know from his art criticism that Ashbery distinguishes two kinds of
surrealism, and only rejects the label in equal fear of excessively academicist or
populist interpretations. Although "the term surrealism has fallen into disfavor," he
praised Yves Tanguy as its embodiment on the ground that for him "the arbitrary
distinction between abstract and figurative art did not exist" (Reported Sightings
27). It is clear from the context that he is referring to surrealism "not in the parochial
1920s sense ofthe term but in the second, open sense in which it can still be said to

Style: Volume 38, No. 1, Spring 2004

Ernesto Suarez-Toste

animate much of the most advanced art being done today" (see also McCabe 151).
Although the most convincing analysis of surrealism as a twofold movement is
made in the formally related terms of automatist-abstract and illusionistic-oneiric
(see Krauss 91-94), Ashbery's distinction shows a greater personal involvement,
not necessarily based on formal criteria. His categorization opposes the outdated
and dogmatic received idea of surrealism with an empowering and liberating
alternative conception. It is clear enough, though, that the former is related to
Bretonian automatism, which he rejects: "The coupling of this acknowledged
interest tin surrealism] with the alleged difficulty of his writing has led readers to
view Ashbery mistakenly as an American Surrealist, practicing an automatic
writing that 1. . .] directly expresses his unconscious. Ashbery flatly denies the
assertion that he composes by automatic writing" (Fredman 130). I would like to
argue here that Ashbery's decade in France influenced him not only through his
acquaintance with surrealist art and poetics, but also through his increasing
knowledge of the possibilities of the French language and the linguistic
experiments conducted by the Oulipo group. This will explain many obscure
features of Ashbery's idiom, including the automatic aspect of his poetry and many
apparently whimsical collocations. His French experience made him not an
American Surrealist but a surrealist American, that is, not a writer whose main
perception of the movement came from the 1940s interaction of the New York
period of surrealism, but a poet and art critic who lived in Paris for a long part of
his life and acquired insider's knowledge of the original movement as it was
The matter of Ashbery's reception becomes increasingly complicated when
dealing with his later work, whose acceptance is widespread. While certain
individual examples are acclaimed as masterpieces by consensus ("Self-Portrait in
a Convex Mirror"), other poems published in these books continue to baffle public
and critics alike. I want to focus here on several poems, some of which have so far
received little critical attention and, indeed, show how these are touched by
surrealism, but in a way that has little or nothing to do with the mainstream
movement ("hard-core surrealism" as Ashbery puts it). Alan Williamson has
successfully argued that Ashbery uses disjointed narrative and descriptive
fragments as deliberate interruptions in his poems, like elements in a collage (12022). Among these we can spot a clearly defined group whose inspiration seems to
have been the characteristic iconographic catalogue of the Italian painter and poet
Giorgio de Chirico, co-founder of the school of Pittura Metafisica and precursor of
surrealism. His literary work has already been related to Ashbery's, regarding the
likeness of the prose in Three Poems and de Chirico's novel Hebdomeros
(Fredman 131-32). In the endnotes to The Double Dream of Spring Ashbery
himself explained that the title was borrowed from one of de Chirico's paintings,
and this is something most critics mention but hardly ever elaborate."

"The Tension Is in the Concept": John Ashbery's Surrealism

However, it would not be exaggerated to suggest that Ashbery at some stage

developed a passion for de Chirico's work, and a close look at the poems of the
period around 1975 shows how Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror and Houseboat
Days are sprinkled all over with elements from the Italian's metaphysical
landscapes. In 1988 a volume was published in English containing Hebdomeros
and several other pieces by de Chirico. Ashbery was among the translators, and his
1966 review for Book Week of the French edition of Hebdomeros (1964) was
reprinted as the preface. (His translations date from 1967 to 1975, with the
exception of those commissioned for this edition). This shows to how well and how
long he knew de Chirico's writing.'' Not long after Ashbery published Hotel
Lautreamont, a book that represents his late "surrealistic reassertion" (Moramarco,
"Coming" 43).
In fact, it is little wonder that Ashbery has felt attracted to de Chirico, since
they share a wide range of obsessions. Traveling and the passing of time have
become major preoccupations for both, and they have associated these in a very
similar way. Spatial and temporal movement are thus intrinsically connected, the
traveling impulse having a cathartic function against the burden of passing time.
But at the same time our wandering stands for the permanent sense of loss, the
typically metaphysical anxiety. Moreover, they are equally fond of chance
associations, but within certain restrictions, scarcely following the Bretonian rule
of the unconscious that led to automatic writing. The effect sought by Ashbery's
"logic / Of strange position" {Some Trees 74) found a consecrated poetics in de
Chirico's "metaphysical aesthetic," a vague term coined by the Italian to refer to his
special sensibility toward those privileged moments of random intersection
between the uncanny and the mundane:
One must picture everything in the world as an enigma, not only the great questions one
has always asked oneself [.. .]. But rather to understand the enigma of things generally
considered insignificant. To perceive the mystery of certain phenomena of feeling [...].
To live in the world as if in an immense museum of strangeness, full of curious manycolored toys which change their appearance, which, like little children we sometimes
break to see how they are made on the inside, and, disappointed, realize they are empty.
("EluardMs." 185-86)

Equally, both feel an unusual interest in the role of memory and the world of
dreams, which accounts for their characteristically uneasy atmospheres. They
subvert the logic of natural events, and provide an alternative of their own. De
Chirico managed to "turn the realities of the seen world and the logic of traditional
perspective systems into a theater where dreams could unfold" (Rosenblum 47).
But despite his distortions of perspectiveanother technique he shares with
Ashberyde Chirico is considered a narrative painter, somewhat foreign to the
spirit of formal experimentation that swept over the Paris of Cubism and Dada.
Ashbery has written of Parmigianino's self-portrait that "The surprise, the tension
are in the concept / Rather than its realization" {Self-Portrait 74). Similarly, Max

Ernesto Suarez-Toste

Morise wrote of de Chirico that "his images are surrealist, but their expression is
not" (26). A link between the two painters can be found in Ashbery's own art
criticism, where he has proposed Parmigianino as a precursor of de Chirico on
account of "his craftsmanship at the service of a sense of the mystery behind
physical appearances" (Reported Sightings 31).
Affinities of approach and treatment are reinforced by Ashbery's adoption of
metaphysical imagery for Self-Portrait and especially Houseboat Days. In the
latter volume a good number of poems feature passages where the voice seems to
inhabit a metaphysical landscape/dreamscape, as if it belonged to one of the
passengers inside de Chirico's trains, embedded in his own thoughts but also
looking sporadically through the window and thus interrupting the flow by letting
the landscape intrude (Ashbery wrote The Vermont Notebook during a bus tour, of
Massachusetts). Naturally, and given the connotations of metaphysical landscapes,
this happens in those moments when the poem's mood is already (or wants to
beccjme) nostalgic or melancholy. A long list of items could be extracted from
Houseboat Days to match de Chirico's favorite iconographic choices: towers,
trains, stations, clocks, statues and pedestals, plazas, shadows, arches, maps, spires,
machicolations, flagpoles, battlements, etc. But they also share techniques.
Richard Howard applied Andre Gide's extrapolation from heraldry to show how
Ashbery slips lines en abyme by writing unmediated comments into the poem,
often about the poem's own process of becoming (26-27)." De Chirico's The
Double Dream of Spring is an apt example of the same technique. It portrays the
artist's studio, showing an unfinished painting within the painting: a painting en
abyme that echoes the title's suggestion of dreaming within a dream, and thus gives
away the circumstances of artistic creation.
Ashbery's poem "All and Some" (Self-Portrait 64-65) is a case of poem en
abyme in the way it advances the mood and aesthetics of the following volume by
introducing metaphysical imagery and touching upon those concerns that will
become crucial in Houseboat Days. It is representative of a wide variety of
recurrent elements in Ashbery's poetry and therefore a sort of emblem in itself.''
The scenario is that of a valediction, putting an end to a love story. The opening
lines emphasize change and departure from previous habits, which adds to the
departure of the lover and also Ashbery's departure from the tradition of
valedictions in English poetry: here the poet is the one who stays, and the one with
a greater sense of loss. The nostalgic mood later adopted in the poem will suit the
inclusion of de Chirico's imagery.
The poem is also representative of the shell games Ashbery plays with
language and the readers' expectations. The opening line ("And for those who
understand:") seeks to establish a complicity with the reader, based not only on the
in medias res beginning but also on the apparently selective implications of the
statement, and of the title, too. One may feel entitled to wonder, in difficult poetry
like Ashbery's, whether we are in for a higher level of difficulty from now on. No

"The Tension Is in the Concept": John Ashbery's Surrealism

one would aceept that this is a discouraging opening, for we would hardly deserve
the name of readers then. In fact, it works in the opposite way, more like aggressive
advertising strategies. Charles Molesworth, in a less celebratory attitude, has
denounced the way in which "the author-reader contract is a conspiratorial one for
Ashbery, as he writes not simply for those 'in the know,' but for those who can
dally at will" (170). Well, it is. We want to be "those" who deserve the confidence
of the poet.
Another deceptive phrase in the poem comes in line 22: "But what I mean is
[. . .]." This is another trick played on the reader, for what follows is hardly an
explanation of anything. Structurally it recalls those false "tips" by magicians who
announce they will teach the audience how to do a trick at home to impress our
friends, and end up by complicating it even more. De Chirico is hardly ever so
openly self-conscious, although he can introduce unmediated remarks in his
canvases. In The Fatal Temple he painted a still-life and then mapped it by writing
names next to the objects. The names were not those of the objects, but more
abstract and symbolic, likeyoie or souffrance. In radical contrast to these, by the
side of a distorted fish he bluntly wrote chose etrahge. This is not just an example
of unmediated address, it is a fitting technique to introduce an ambiguous irony and
rescue the painting from the risk of falling into the sublime. Ashbery, to mention
only one example, fearing the same elevation of tone in one of his poems, wrote the
deflating two-word sentence "Time farted" immediately after one such passage
(Double Dream 29).
Ashbery and de Chirico also share a strong drive toward originality,
emphasizing the importance of a fresh approach to reality and art. In the case of
twentieth-century poetry the new has an intrinsic value, and de Chirico relates this
to the principle of revelation in art: one is surprised by one's own inspiration.
Ashbery seems to appreciate revelations when he writes about "waking up / In the
middle of a dream with one's mouth full / Of unknown words [...]" (Setf-Portrait
55). These lines, moreover, establish a sort of dissociation between the conscious
self and the unconscious, suggesting the powerful transformations undergone
during dreams. For both de Chirico and Ashbery the role of memory and the world
of dreams acquire particular relevance. They do not attempt to describe, but to
reproduce, explore, sometimes even subvert them. De Chirico followed
Schopenhauer in developing his own theory about madness and art, and held that
memory is responsible for the irreversible prosification of the world, for it causes
us to become bored with repeated experience:
Schopenhauer defines the madman as a person who has lost his memory. It is an apt
definition because, in fact, that which constitutes the logic of our normal acts and our
normal life is a continuous rosary of recollections of relationships between things and
ourselves and vice versa [...]. By deduction we might conclude that everything has two
aspects: a normal one [... and] the other, the spectral or metaphysical which can be seen
only by rare individuals in moments of clairvoyance or metaphysical abstraction [. . .].
("On Metaphysical Art" 450)

Ernesto Suarez-Toste

Ashbery has his own statement on this subject, which does not altogether lack
the mystic tone of de Chirico's, and evidently shares with it the interest in the
functions of mental machinery. Moreover, Ashbery's idea ofthe poem as found
object, something which has an existence of its own and which the poet has to
discover, fits in with the Italian's welcome to revelation:
Memory, forgetfulness, and being are certainly things that are happening in our minds all
the time which I'm attempting to reproduce in poetry, the actions of a mind at work or at
rest [...]. My poetry is really trying to explore consciousness to give it perspective [...].
I begin with unrelated phrases and notations that later on I hope get resolved in the course
of the poem as it begin.': to define itself more clearly for me.
("Craft Interview" 118-19, emphasis added)

Therefore it is not strange that Ashbery has adopted such experimental modes
during his career, with a particularly innovative attitude toward language. De
Chirico on his part wrote his novel Hebdomeros in French, which was not his
mother tongue but allowed him the kind of prose Ashbery has repeatedly praised.
Even outside The Tennis Court Oath Ashbery has sporadically afforded such
defying gestures as resorting to the techniques of the Oulipo writers group; or
simply making use of cultural differences in direct translations from the French. In
the poem "Variations, Calypso and Fugue on a Theme of Ella Wheeler Wilcox" he
used the Oulipian strategy of replacing words by their definitions: "On the one
hand, a vast open basinor sea; on the other a narrow spit of land, terminating in
a copse, with a few broken-down outbuildings lying here and there. It made no
difference that the beyb-e-y this time, oriental potentatehad ordained their
release [. . . ] " {Double Dream 28). In the opening of this passage Ashbery has
described a bay ("vast open basin" limited by the "narrow spit of land"), so he
pretends that the mention of the bey in the third line demands spelling to avoid
confusion, and then provides a crossword definition in two words. This is a
challenge to the reader's patience, for many would rather miss the point than find
out how perversely playful the poet can be. But there is certainly pleasure in the
finding, if one happens to be "in the mood for Ashbery."
Ashbery's adoption of Oulipian techniques seems to work on the basis of
personal affinity rather than systematic adherence to the movement. In fact, many
of these strategies are very similar to those employed in Ashbery's collaborations
with Kenneth Koch, like logo-rally (in the random selection of teleutons in
sestinas, for example). Ashbery's self-imposed use of highly demanding forms
such as the sestina, the cento, or the pantoum, where form can be said to condition
meaning by restricting the paradigm available, pursues a very deliberate aesthetic
effect, which in fact constitutes an established genre of Oulipian practice (though
it is a genre in permanent flux). In this sense Ashbery is always moving between the
automatic-looking experimentalism of The Tennis Court Oath and these
restrictions, which are defined by Raymond Queneau as the very opposite strategy:

"The Tension Is in the Concept": John Ashbery's Surrealism

Another false idea that is current nowadays is the equivalence established between
inspiration, the exploration of the subconscious, and liberation; between chance,
automatism, and freedom. The kind of freedom that consists of blindly obeying every
impulse is in reality a form of slavery. The classical author, who when writing his tragedy
follows a certain number of rules that he knows, is freer than the poet who writes whatever
comes into his head and is the slave of other rules he is unaware of.
(Oulipo 123)

Among other Oulipian techniques there is one more associated with Ashbery' s
poetry. "Pumectation" can be defined as "the ostensible procedure that a writer
uses to mask the procedure he is actually using" (211). This is also called
"Imparmigianization" and very aptly so in this context, because Ashbery saw
through Parmigianino's use of this technique from the very third line of "SelfPortrait," in the way the hand is advanced "as though to protect / What it advertises"
(68). Equally, within "All and Some" we can find this imparmigianization in the
already mentioned "But what I mean is [. . .]," a device that actually helps to
conceal the meaning it promises to reveal.
Another technique that seems expressly devised by a would-be saboteur of the
Rosetta stone is the exploitation (by means of direct translation) of cultural or
idiomatic differences with French. Sarah Lundquist has studied Ashbery's "French
Poems"originally written in French so that his own translation into English
would avoid "customary word-patterns and associations" {Double Dream 95)
and reached the conclusion that he used cognates wherever possible, emphasizing
the inherent similarities between the two languages. While this applies to the
"French Poems," the opposite is also true outside this small corpus. Perhaps this
second technique is limited to very specific expressive possibilities that Ashbery
misses in English, but these are hardly "expressive" if the readers overlook them.
Of the following two examples one is easily justified, the other less so.
The first one is recurrent in Ashbery's poetry, but he has explained it only
once, as if he took his readers' faithfulness for granted. At least this is a meaningful
case, where he might have reasonably missed the resources available in French.
Two of Ashbery's most recurrent themes, time and the weather or climate, happen
to share the same French word {temps), and this establishes an "extra" happy
connection which somebody with his sensibility toward language cannot help
celebrating. Thus in "The Ice-Cream Wars" he writes "Time and the weather /
Don't always go hand in hand, as here [...]" {Houseboat Days 60). But other times
he stretches the coupling along several lines, or else one of the two terms is merely
implicit, as in "Pyrography": "The page of dusk turns like a creaking revolving
stage [. . . ] " (8). Here the connotations of rusty machinery and heavy, slow
movement recall the internal mechanism of a clock, hence time, contrasting with
the transition from day into night, which is the most natural in the world, but it is
a meaningful mixture if the poet has the polysemic French temps in mind. These
quotations belong to Houseboat Days, and their explanation is found in the title
poem of his previous volume, "Self-Portrait": "the weather, which in French is / Le

Ernesto Suarez-Toste

temps, the word for time [...]" (Self-Portrait 70). In any case it becomes clear that
he can play with concepts and names at will.
The second example is the allusion to rain in "Daffy Duck in Hollywood":
The allegory comes unsnarled
Too soon; a shower of pecky acajou harpoons is
About all there is to be noted between tornadoes. I have
Only my intermittent life in your thoughts to live
Which is like thinking in another language.

(,Hou.ieb()at Days 32)

In French, in descriptions of heavy rain, there exists the idiomatic expression

pleuvoirdes hallebardes [to rain halberds], which is closer to the English "cats and
dogs" than to other, more logically appropriate terms of measure (a seaux
[bucketfuls]). These hallebardes have an exact equivalent in Spanish (a chuzos
[spears]), but not in English. Therefore Ashbery's "shower of pecky acajou
harpoons" between tornadoes works as a reference to prickling raindrops. The
proximity of the phrase "thinking in another language" may provide a clue here.
Naming was a very important task for de Chirico, who learned from his
readings of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche that the best way to achieve his
metaphysical, defamiliarizing presentation of ordinary events and objects is to see
things again with the freshness of the first time. Thisof courseapplies equally
to their names, since these are inevitably charged with banality. In a sense, he
needed to begin from a tabula rasa, to avoid these connotations: "What is needed
above all, is to rid art of all that has been its familiar content until now; all subject,
all idea, all thought, all symbol must be put out" ("Eluard Ms." 187). Similarly,
Ashbery wrote in 1962 that his purpose in poetry was "a restituer aux choses leur
vrai nom, a abolir l'eternel poids mort de symbolisme et d'allegorie" ([to return
things their true names, to lift the immemorial burden of symbolism and allegory]
qtd. in Longenbach 123n. 11). "To return things their true names" is traditionally an
Orphic function, and to rid names of the accumulated "burden of symbolism" is
exactly what de Chirico aspired to do in his paintings.
It is in the second half of "All and Some" where we can find a profusion of
elements from de Chirico's landscapes. Returning to the nostalgic tone of the
valediction, the setting acquires an intensely evocative power, and the poet
complains that now no one "Cares or uses the little station any more. / They are too
young to remember/ How it was when the late trains came in. / Violet sky grazing
the gray hill-crests"(5e//-forrra/r65). A similar melancholy can be attributed to the
innumerable train stations in de Chirico's paintings. These perfect settings of
anxiety and nostalgia, of departure and arrival, of greetings and farewells, would
eventually become emblematic of surrealism, and so, in his description of the 1938
surrealist exhibition in Paris, Georges Hugnet referred to it both as a "railroad
station for the imagination and the dream," and "a steam engine that broke a breach
in the ramparts of our senses large enough for the heroic charge of our dreams,
desires, and needs" (qtd. in Sawin 10-11).

"The Tension Is in the Concept": John Ashbery's Surrealism

Many of Ashbery's poems feature passages that recreate the wait in stations
("Melodic Trains" in Houseboat Days [24-26]), or describe a metaphysical
landscape seen from a train. "Pyrography" (Houseboat Days 8-10) is a remarkable
example of the image of Ashbery as passenger in one of de Chirico's trains. The
"slow boxcar journey" takes us through a country built "partly over with fake ruins,
in the image of ourselves: / An arch that terminates in mid-keystone, a crumbling
stone pier / For laundresses, an open-air theater, never completed / And only
partially designed." The vision of those ruins is very apt to share the feeling evoked
in metaphysical paintings. Not ruins as criticism of the decay of modern
civilization, but "fake ruins" as a gratuitous demonstration of disdain for
functionality, and a further concession to aestheticism. But the introduction of such
a landscape is not for aesthetic purposes only, and the metaphysical potential of the
ruins triggers Ashbery's imagination into one of his typical reflections on time and
what attitude we should adopt to face its passing:
How are we to inhabit
This space from which the fourth wall is invariably missing.
As in a stage-set or doUhouse, except by staying as we are.
In lost profile, facing the stars, with dozens of as yet
Unrealized projects, and a strict sense
Of time running out, of evening presenting
The tactfully folded-over bill?

Existential doubts of all sorts, including the fear that we may be little more than
a puppet show for some good-humored deity, are softened by the witty image of
time as a maitre d', with an implicit carpe diem messagemake the best possible
meal, for the bill will invariably be too expensive. Ashbery's description of the
setting is extremely apt here. De Chirico's "drama of objects" needs a stage, and
Ashbery's typically untypical scenario is very much like a stage-set, an "open field
of narrative possibilities" (Three Poems 41).
Other poems use the iconography of de Chirico's train stations to describe
imaginary settings, as is the case in "On the Towpath," where, as Marjorie Perloff
has noted, "unspecified persons perform unspecified and unrelated acts against the
backdrop of a constantly shifting landscape whose contours dissolve before our
eyes" (72). De Chirico's painting participates in this general indeterminacy by
creating the feeling that indeed "something" is happening, that there is a logic
ruling these events, but one we are not invited to understand. In that sense he could
be said to paint in medias res. One of de Chirico's paintings. Mystery and
Melancholy of a Street, features a typical metaphysical setting where a girl runs up
a street (not a rampart but a ramp) and the building behind her shows spires and
machicolations. A variation on the same motif, Melancolie d'une rue, pictures a
background with a station clock and the shadow of a tower, projected from outside
the frame. Compare with the setting of "On the Towpath":


Ernesto Suarez-Toste

On the earth a many-colored tower of longing rises.


A white figure runs to the edge of some rampart

In a hurry only to observe the distance,
And having done so, drops back into the mass
Of clock-faces, spires, stalactite machicolations.

(Houseboat Days 22-23)

The girls in both canvases indeed seem to be running for its own sake, either
with a hoop or with a skipping-rope." They run "to observe the distance," that is, not
to see, but to keep the distance with a world in permanent motion: "One must move
very fast in order to stay in the same place, as the Red Queen said, the reason being
that [. . .] you must still learn to cope with the onrushing tide of time and all the
confusing phenomena it bears in its wake" (Three Poems 90). This is also
applicable to de Chirico's frozen trains, whose arrested motion is strangely
foregrounded in the paintings. Regarding the "many-colored tower of longing," de
Chirico has several paintings devoted exclusively to a multicolored tower built
with narrowing layers of square or circular colonnades, in the fashion traditionally
attributed to the tower of Babel. The evocation of Babel, with its verbal confusion,
is equally appropriate in both cases, and a motif that keeps reappearing in
Ashbery's poetry (acquiring particular relevance in the "New Spirit" section of
Three Poems).
Finally, the frequent apparition of trains in Ashbery's poemsas in de
Chirico's canvasessuggests the way in which he seems to relate them to his
obsessions. We find speeding trains and trains in stations; scenes observed from
trains and inside other trains, even words read on the windows of passing trains. For
both Ashbery and de Chirico railway timetables seem to be simultaneously reliable
and somewhat flexible. Trains constitute an alternative timing system and at the
same time they are subject to human delay. It is a very fitting treatment of the motif:
both need to feel that there is a chance for human control of time, but they know this
feeling of control is only illusory: "The train comes bearing joy; / [ . . . ] / For long
we hadn't heard so much news, such noise. / [ . . . ] / As laughing cadets say, 'In the
evening/Everything has a schedule, if you can find out what it is'" {Some Trees 9).
The train brings joy, and the possibility of a universal logic and harmony. Its own
schedule seems to endow life with a meaning yet unrevealed to us. On the other
hand, it is laughing cadets, representing inexperienced and playful youth, who
voice the statement. Whether the message is reassuring or merely intriguing
depends upon readers, and that is probably Ashbery's intention. The message does
nothing but mirror the predetermined attitude of the reader, at its best opening new
possibilities but not aimed at converting anyone. In "Melodic Trains" (Houseboat
Days 24-26) the poet comments on all these questions with a similar attitude:
A little girl with scarlet enameled fingernails
Asks me what time it isevidently that's a toy wristwatch
She's wearing, for fun [.. .].

"The Tension Is in the Concept": John Ashbery's Surrealism


[... A]s though our train were a pencil

Guided by a ruler held against a photomural of the Alps
We both come to see distance as something unofficial
And impersonal yet not without its curious justification
Like the time of a stopped watchright twice a day.

Only a child would wear a watch "for fun," says Ashbery in his late forties. The
girl is playing at being an adult, but Time will take care of making her one of them.
On the other hand, she does not really want to know the time, but rather the time
remaining before their arrival. The image of the train as pencil on a photomural (or
a tnap, as in films) makes this clear: when traveling, time and distance become
indissociably united, assuming, as he seems to do, that speed is a reliable constant
for modern trains. A stopped watch is right twice a day, far more often than a slow
or fast one, and yet it is good for nothing, since you cannot check when it is right
(unless you have another watch). This implies that human time works on
approximations rather than exactness. Then the train schedule becomes a reliable,
alternative time-measuring system, like "the philosopher's daily walk that the
neighbors set their watches by" {Three Poems 32). Ashbery seems to envy the logic
behind train timetables, like those "wafer-thin pedestrians / Who know where they
are going" {Self-Portrait 5). Of course he knows that their security is just a false
impression we get from outside, but;just like boys watching ants in the garden
the feeling that they know their mission necessarily filters through the cracks in our
De Chirico has his own way of feeling he can control time, through the
systematic immobilization of trains in his paintings. Often even the smoke cloud
rising from the chimney remains vertically static, despite the wind that keeps the
station flags in permanent flapping and betrays the incoherence: "Le don etrange
de Chirico est d'immobiliser le temps dans le silence de sa memoire, sur une place
ou deux personnages se rencontrent ou se separent a la fin d' une chaude apres-midi
d'6t6" ([De Chirico's strange gift is to immobilize time in the silence of his
memory, in a square where two characters meet or part at the end of a hot summer
afternoon] De Bonnafos).
John Ashbery's poetry, sharing a variety of common concerns with de
Chiricosuch as the passing of time, the impulse to travel, and the enigma of
ordinary objects and situationshas repeatedly demonstrated the influence of the
latter's plastic and literary work. This shows through Ashbery's adoption of
metaphysical aesthetics whenever he seeks the melancholy, nostalgic tone evoked
by the Italian's paintings. The frequency with which this happens coincides fully
with Ashbery's periodic translations of de Chirico's literary work from 1967 to
1992, and this surprises no one, given his characteristic permeability to external
inspiration. Even less surprising is the choice, considering his interest in art and his
recurrent nostalgia for the French language. This choice may be surrealist in
origininsofar as we can call de Chirico a surrealistbut most likely what


Ernesto Suarez-Toste

attracted Ashbery to de Chirico is his selective distance from surrealism, not his
membership in the movement. Beyond the interpretation of specific passages
which otherwise would be thrown into the surrealist bin, I hope to have contributed
to the clarification of Ashbery's surrealist affinities and techniques, emphasizing
visuality but also his playful approach to language and poetry. Of particular interest
is the way he manages to cultivatesimultaneously or sequentiallydifferent
pairs of opposites, a typically surrealist aspiration. He does not really balance or
reconcile these opposites, but rather oscillates between them, between automaticlooking experimentation and restrictive Oulipian practices, between the use of
cognates and the exploitation of untranslatable idiomatic expressions, between
self-revelatory texts en abyme and deceiving pumectation, and finally between the
most irreconcilable set of contraries: just as Gertrude Stein praised de Chirico for
making "no distinction between the real and the unreal" (30), Ashbery wrote of
Tanguy that for him "the arbitrary distinction between abstract and figurative
painting did not exist [and so he] painted real if nonexistent objects [. . .] in the
interest of a more integral realism" {Reported Sightings 27). There can be little
doubt that Ashbery has succeeded in the same terms.

' Wolf aligned Ashbery with Abstract Expressionism, but his poetry has been
too diverse to allow any integral identification with a particular movement. David
Sweet and David Bergman have successfully corrected his view. Sweet is the
author of the most satisfactory analysis of Ashbery' s relationship with the painterly
avant-garde at large, pointing at his kinship with marginal figures and precursors
of surrealism. He argues that Ashbery's "ritual collagism" is characteristic of
surrealism and does not fit in with Abstract Expressionism (324). Bergman goes
deeper in his rejection of "lack of finish" in Ashbery's surfaces, which he sees
instead as overworked in the Mannerist style of Parmigianino, partly revived in this
century by de Chirico (xxi-xxii). Bergman refutes Wolfs dismissive treatment of
specific works and authors mentioned in the poems, claiming de Chirico as a
"touchstone" in Ashbery's career, without further elaborating this point (xiv). I will
argue here that the relevance of de Chirico cannot be overstressed. Indeed, this
essay aims primarily to explore his influence on Ashbery and traces the recurrence
of metaphysical aesthetics during almost twenty years of Ashbery's poetic
production underI borrow Robert Rosenblum's phrasede Chirico's "long
American shadow."
^ Apparentlyperhaps not surprisinglymost critics who are hostile to the
early Ashbery are also fierce enemies of surrealism. Hence my use of "trivialized,"
which in fact means that these critics renounce further exploration once the fearful
diagnostic has been reached. There is a whole tradition of Ashbery detractors
demanding meaning in his poetry, including Robert Boyers (1978), Charles
Molesworth (1979), and James Fenton (1985), among others. Fenton's review is

"The Tension Is in the Concept": John Ashbery's Surrealism


titled "Getting Rid of the Burden of Sense," quoting a line from Ashbery that I also
use here, with decidedly different intentions.
' For a convincing refutation of Ashbery's rejection of other French
influences, see Ford.
Richard Howard would be an exception here, for he pointed as early as 1970
that de Chirico's "oneiric dissociations are the kind of thing Ashbery himself
aspires to" (45).
' Ashbery' s thirty years of art criticism, collected in Reported Sightings, would
simply not make any sense without his constant references to the Italian, who is
praised as a major figure in the development of twentieth-century painting.
^ Howard delights in the way "many writers have provided a clue in the form
of an imaginative schema or construct which heightens the work's inner resonance
at the same time that it defines the poetics by which the contraption operates" (2627). He explains that for Gide the epitome of this technique was the heraldic
suspension of a second, identical blazon in the center of the first. Gide's literary
examples are classics like Hamlet's "Mousetrap" and Las Meninas. For a
compelling study of this device see Dallenbach.
' For David Sweet, "Self-Portrait" marks a climax in Ashbery's participation
in a "Stevensian" tradition: "Gone are the piano-legged girls, the bottle-labels and
other discarded objects that betoken dada and surrealist influences and assume the
rough texture of assembled fragments or the marvelous sheen of chimerical
juxtapositions. In contrast, Parmigianino's art involves intention, reproduction,
and discrimination" (331). As a poem included in the same volume, "All and
Some" advances Ashbery's imminent return to de Chirico's metaphysical
sensibility in Houseboat Days. Indeed, Sweet admits that "Self-Portrait" actually
"does not set the standard for Ashbery' s subsequent poetry, which often vigorously
reincorporates the experimental plasticities of collagist, juxtapositional, and other
disjunctive strategies."
" There is in Ashbery's poetry at least an instance of a "girl / With the hoop"
(April Galleons 67).

Works Cited
Ashbery, John. April Galleons. New York: Farrar, 1987.
. "Craft Interview with John Ashbery." The Craft of Poetry: Interviews from
The New York Quarterly. Ed. William Packard. Garden City: Doubleday,
1974. 111-32.
. The Double Dream of Spring. New York: Ecco, 1970.
. Hotel Lautreamont. New York: Knopf, 1992.
. Houseboat Days: Poems. New York: Viking, 1977.


Ernesto Suarez-Toste

. Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles 1957-1989. New York: Knopf, 1989.

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror: Poems. New York: Viking, 1975.
. Some Trees. New Haven: Yale UP, 1956.
. The Tennis Court Oath: A Book of Poems. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1962.
. Three Poems. New York: Viking, 1972.
. The Vermont Notebook. Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1975.
Bergman, David. Introduction. Ashbery, Reported Sightings xi-xxiii.
Boyers, Robert. "A Quest without an Object." Times Literary Supplement 1 Sept
1978: 962-63.
De Bonnafos, Edith. "Au-del^ de l'image par le mystere." Grands peintres
Hachette: Chirico 96 (April 1968). N. pag.
Dallenbach, Lucien. The Mirror in the Text. Trans. Jeremy Whiteley with Emma
Hughes. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989. Of Le recit speculaire: essai sur la
mise en abyme. Paris: Seuil, 1977.
De Chirico, Giorgio. The Double Dream of Spring. 1915. Private collection.
. "Eluard Manuscript." Trans, various. Hebdomeros 175-204.
. The Fatal Temple. 1914. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Hebdomeros, with Monsieur Dudron's Adventure and Other Metaphysical
Writings. Preface by Ashbery. New York: PAJ Publications; rpt. Cambridge:
Exact Change, 1992. Hebdomeros 1929 (1-117).
. Melancholie d'une rue. Private collection.
. Mystery and Melancholy of a Street. 1914. Private collection.
"On Metaphysical Art." 1919. Trans. Joshua C. Taylor. Theories of Modern
Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics. Ed. Herschel B. Chipp. Berkeley: U
of California P, 1968.448-52.
Fenton, James. "Getting Rid of the Burden of Sense." New York Times Book
Review 29 Dec. 1985: 10.
Ford, Mark. "Mount d'Espoiror Mount Despair. Early Bishop, Early Ashbery, and
the French." Poetry and the Sense of Panic. Ed. Lionel Kelly. AmsterdamRodopi, 2000. 9-27.
Fredman, Stephen. Poet's Prose: The Crisis of Modern American Verse. New
York: Cambridge UP, 1983.
Howard, Richard. Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United
States since 1950. Enl. ed. New York: Athenaeum, 1980.

"The Tension Is in the Concept": John Ashbery's Surrealism


Krauss, Rosalind. The Originality oftheAvant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths.

Cambridge: MIT P, 1986.
Lehman, David, ed. Beyond Amazement: New Essays on John Ashbery. Ithaca:
Cornell UP, 1980.
Longenbach, James. "Ashbery and the Individual Talent." American Literary
History 9 (1997): 103-27.
Lundquist, Sara. "'L^gerete et Richesse': John Ashbery's English 'French
Poems.'" Contemporary Literature 32 (1991): 403-21.
McCabe, Susan. "Stevens, Bishop, and Ashbery: A Surrealist Lineage." The
Wallace Stevens Journal 22 {FaW 1998): 149-68.
Molesworth, Charles. The Fierce Embrace: A Study of Contemporary American
Poetry. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1979.
Moramarco, Fred. "The Painterly Poets: John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara."
Journal of Modern Literature 5 (1976): 436-62.
. "Coming Full Circle: John Ashbery's Later Poetry." The Tribe of John:
Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry. Ed. Susan M. Schultz. Tuscaloosa: U of
Alabama P, 1995.38-59.
Morise, Max. "Les yeux enchantds." La revolution surrealiste. 1 Dec. 1924.
Oulipo Compendium. Ed. Harry Matthews and Alastair Brotchie. London: Atlas
Press, 1998.
Perloff, Marjorie. "'Fragments of a Buried Life': John Ashbery's Dream Songs."
Lehman 66-86.
Rosenblum, Robert. "De Chirico's Long American Shadow." y4rf in America July
1996: 46-55.
Sawin, Martica. Surrealism in Exile and the Beginning of the New York School.
Cambridge: MIT P, 1995.
Stein, Gertrude. Everybody's Autobiography. 1937. New York: Random, 1973.
Sweet, David. '"And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name': John Ashbery, the Plastic
Arts, and the Avant-Garde." Comparative Literature 50 (1998): 316-32.
Williamson, Alan. Introspection and Contemporary Poetry. Cambridge: Harvard
UP, 1984.
Wolf, Leslie. "The Brushstroke's Integrity: The Poetry of John Ashbery and the
Art of Painting." Lehman 224-54.