Literary Classics of the United States
Literary Classics of the United States, Inc. and the strange case of John Ashbery
When my daughter Radhika burst forth with her "waste of space" comment about Paul Naylor's new Tinfish Press book, I happened to be holding in my hand the Library of America volume of John Asbhery's Collected Poems 1956-1987. "See, here's what happens when you try to save paper!" I remember imagining myself saying. But Radhika is seven years old, after all, and despite her cluedness about many things, the semiotics of book publishing may still be beyond, beside, and/or beneath her. Where Naylor's book puts a premium on the page as a jam session between blankness and print, silence and language, the Library of America Ashbery (like the LoA anybody) puts its premiums on text, and text within a pre-determined space, let's call it 5X8 inches, or about the size of a mid-sized photograph. Where Naylor's book features paper of a certain heft (negotiated between the designer and money bags here), the LoA features paper that feels like the old airmail stationery, light because it had to travel. Well, we all know that Ashbery travels, but this format and material has me, if not seething, then grumpy, if not grumpy, then giggling. When the reader arrives at The Vermont Notebook, written by JA and illustrated by Joe Brainard, the paper betrays us all.
Is this the raciest thing ever to grace an LoA book? One wonders. While on the one hand, I'm thinking that the book format is simply too fancy kine (or hybolical, in Pidgin) to support the work of a poet who writes lines like "'once I let a guy blow me'" (442) or "Hunted unsuccessfully, / To be torn down later / The horse said" (79) or any number of unconcorded quotations one can mine here or in any JA volume. And yet in this campiest of JA texts (see Susan Sontag, I'm not going there!), the reader can see through the naked man with no right eye to what falls below him, namely a clock (it's 3)(not a cock, oh the parentheticals multiply!) and a washer and dryer (no apparent make). The Granary Books edition of The Vermont Notebook, published in 2001 along with Z Press in Vermont (9-ish by 6 1/2 inches, if you're counting, and I am), allows no such peep hole of transparency. Published originally in 1975 by Black Sparrow, there's a certain 1950s quality to the schematic illustrations, which draws out for me the contrast (not the word I need, but that one doesn't exist) between the lounging naked man and the appliances that keep our clothes clean and our day itself in order. So, as the LoA attempts to render JA a canonical figure, the American version of a French Academie-approved poet, they have succeeded in drawing out what makes him most interesting, the wacky wavering of his diction, the jumpy juxtaposition of his thought images. Here's what you see through to:
But I'm being too kind; I'm justifying the LoA atrocity by reading it against itself. Bad critic! The intent of the Library, according to its own website, is this: "The Library of America, a nonprofit publisher, is dedicated to publishing, and keeping in print, authoritative editions of America's best and most significant writing." Ah, the authority! the dedication! the bestness! the significance! the selling! (They rather smartly have a shop at their site, as well.) It's this authority that comes through to my students when I, on rare occasion, teach JA's work in my Hawai`i classrooms. Last time I taught a book, April Galleons, to a graduate class, the reaction was mostly one of confusion. One woman from the east coast loved it; another from Hawai`i loved it, but left the class (scheduling problems). Another student, let us call him Kimo A., attacked JA as one of those establishment white poets out to take over the world for his kind; you know, John Milton, Walt Whitman, et al. "But isn't he gay?" someone asked along the way. Now, while identity politics can be annoying, this kind is inevitable here. Why should we be reading this obscure, somewhat identity-less (hence all-encompassing) poetry, when there's so much else more "relevant" to us. Well, that was the rest of the semester . . . A colleague, Gary Pak, now dear to me, said on a panel in the very early 1990s, when I was a babe on the island (babe in the sense of youth, not in my bathing suit), that "we do not want to be John Ashbery!!!" He says I seemed scared of him after that, shuddered in a stairwell when he passed. I was scared because JA was my man.