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- Relis-toi : les fautes de grammaire énervent les correcteurs et peuvent potentiellement l’empêcher de comprendre ce que tu veux dire, elles sont donc à éliminer ! Voici les 10 erreurs à ne pas laisser traîner dans ta copie.
Sujet de commentaire
NO WAY OF KNOWING – John Ashbery : disponible ici !
Proposition de commentaire
If Ashbery declared in the 1983 Paris Review that objects exist “for themselves, and not for some hidden meaning” in his poems, these very objects and notions appear as negated in “No Way of Knowing,” hence the title’s first word, a privative determiner. The poem appears as a text in the negative form as if the written work answered a desire to extract oneself from the world of linguistic representation. This idea is mirrored by the poem’s tripartite structure: the first section underlines the material substance of both objects and words, especially their “surface” (l.10), the second part is packed with images of fragmentation and separation between the inside and the outside representing a crumbling of the surface, hence images of interpenetration and mutual contamination in the last stanza where language and music are correlated. The relation between words and objects is indeed made ungraspable in the poem, which hints at the dissolution of objects culminating in a “chaos” mentioned line 68. This tension between referents and linguistic signs also contributes to the creation of an aesthetics of indeterminacy, a word notably used by Marjorie Perloff to describe Ashbery’s anti-symbolist poetry. Through the numerous negations, the poetic persona establishes an apophatic “theory of knowledge” (l. 78) or epistemology while the transcendentalist trope of the poet as a reconciler is subverted as the persona becomes the mediator between pure knowledge of the world, which is experience, and its linguistic representation. Therefore, how does the poem transcend linguistic descriptive forms in order to create an ars poetica grounded in experience rather than epistemology?
The ambivalences between knowledge and alienation in the poem first open a non-assertive space. A second part will show that this non-assertive space serves an epistemological reflection on language, defining words as surfaces. A last part will assess that those surfaces, namely the labelling of objects, are deconstructed while regeneration is operated through a poetics of experience.
If the theme of ambivalence is evoked straight away by the initial alternative questions raised in the poem, it also follows an ambivalent movement in-between knowledge and alienation. The poem first evokes the metaphor of knowledge (“The working are parallelism […] kept to the domain of metaphor”) but quickly points towards its alienating dimension in an accumulation whose progressive intensity and increasing number of syllables convey the aesthetics of speed, if not futurism as the word “vehicular” is mentioned: “The vehicular madness / Goes on, crashing, thrashing away” (ll. 52-53). This accelerating movement is a motif repeated throughout the poem thanks to oscillations between long, stabilizing diphthongs and disruptive mono- and bisyllabic words. The diphthong /əʊ/ notably lengthens the rhythm of the title in an assonance (“No Way of Knowing”) and is repeated as an ostinato often followed by short syllables such as on line 19 (“grow rank”) or line 2:
˘ / ˘ ˘
The knowledge of …
This movement is complemented by the gradual introduction of juxtapositions that disrupt the fluidity of the poem as on line 20 (“Consume their substance, orphan, disinherit”). A sense of harmony nonetheless seems to be retrieved in the third stanza as accumulations disappear and run-on lines abound, culminating in “the chain of lengthening days” (l. 85) where stability is both evoked by the semantics and by the iambic rhythm. The opposition between knowledge and alienation represented by prosodic devices thus contributes to the creation of a non-assertive space, an idea also hinted at by the treatment of the body and substances in the poem.
The first lines display a movement from eidos to eidolon, namely from the exteriority to the interiority of the poetic voice: colors are mentioned, then their names and then human cognition are referred to. Later, the psyche is personified (“This / Morning it was off taking French lessons. / Now it is resting and cannot be disturbed.” ll. 26-27), which fuels a reflection about the body as an independent system separated from the poetic voice. Such a division echoes the dichotomy opposing materiality and immateriality already established in the lines “It is both the surface, and the accidents / Scarring that surface” (ll. 10-11), in which the persona resorts to Aristotle’s theory about the substance and its accidents, namely its properties. The philosopher, contrary to Plato, asserts that accidents cannot exist without a substance with which they are associated. The poem thus both evokes and challenges this theory with adjectives such as “insubstantial” (l. 13), which contributes to the creation of a non-assertive space also identifiable through the opposition between the seen and the unseen.
If the tension between the seen and the unseen is evoked in the “witnessings and silent lowering of the lids” (l. 36), the visible itself follows a double-tropism. Instances such as “There is no way of knowing whether these are / Our neighbors or friendly savages trapped in the distance / By the red tape of a mirage” (ll. 44-46) present alternatives between rational and irrational perceptions. Following the opposition between knowledge and alienation, such alternatives create a dichotomy between the known (“neighbors”) and the unknown (“savages”) while opening a non-assertive space. Similarly, the “Flowers arranged out of sight” (l. 52) convey a paradox: what about their ontological existence if they cannot be perceived? The liminality between the known and the unknown also becomes an unpalpable, invisible trace (“but the days in between grow rank” l. 19) while knowledge follows a movement from materiality to immateriality (“Consume their substance” l. 20) that the poetic persona deplores with the conjunction “but” (l. 19) whose contrastive function articulates the numerous ambivalences in the poem.
The poem also displays an oscillation between Eros and Thanatos. If death is evoked (“The cut driver pushes them to heaven” l. 64), it oscillates with sexual undertones as shown by the reference to Stimmung mentioned on line 84. It is a musical composition by Stauckhausen featuring polyphonic ostinatos as well as a soloist producing carnal onomatopoeias, breathing /f/, /ʃ/, /ɪ/ and /u/ sounds, and two erotic poems written by the composer. Sexual undertones are also to be found in the underlying idea of penetration in “No one can get in or out” (l. 22), notably as the line is followed by bodily references. Since the line is in the negative form it conveys abstention and frustration as much as castration, an idea reinforced by the following images of bodily dismemberment, the “finger” notably constituting a phallic reference: “One could possibly live without some / Such as finger or elbow” (ll. 24-25). Critic Lee Edelman associates this idea of castration to the disappearance of the poetic “I,” another visual phallic symbol, and to the opening of a non-assertive space. However, if the poetic persona is not mentioned in the first stanza, they gradually appear in the poem and their absence serves more as a criticism of linguistic labels and fuels the epistemology of language established throughout the poem.
The poem establishes an epistemology of language, notably through comments on naming processes that define words as mere “surfaces” (l. 10). On line 6, with “funny-sounding names,” the semantics, as well as the alliteration in /n/, focuses the reader’s attention on nomination, definition and ontology rather than action. The adjective “funny-sounding” also reveals the subjectivity of a poetic persona who is not referred to with the first pronoun before the last stanza of the poem (“I like the spirit of the songs” l. 71). More than echoing T.S. Eliot’s impersonal poetry, this deferral in the explicit naming of the poetic “I” brings about a presence in abstentia that challenges the necessity of a linguistic labelling. Other instances similarly convey an explicit disjunction between signs and referents: the antepiphoric question “Colors and names of colors?” (l. 1) announces straight away that the poem will examine the gap between material objects (“colors”) and their abstract representations with words (“names of colors”). As for lines 11 to 12, they present language, namely writing, as a tangible trace or substrate which works as a substitute for the referred object: “it too only contains / As a book on Sweden only contains the pages of that book.” The two adverbs “only” nonetheless point towards a lack, suggesting that the essence of the referent is lost during the naming process.
More than establishing a dichotomy between the sign and the referent, the poem conjures up the loss occurring during the naming process. The poem points towards the absence of knowledge through a polymorphic, nihilistic language which echoes nihilistic Dada ideals. Prefixes (“disinherit” l. 20; “insubstantial” l. 13; “no-places” l. 13) and suffixes (“without” l. 24) are morphological restrictive marks allowing the persona to both assert and cancel this same assertion simultaneously while hinting at the delusory dimension of language: a “no-place” is and is not at the same time. “Hallo” (l. 47) also conveys the deceptiveness of language: it may refer either to the archaic vernacular way of saying “hello” or to the German translation of that same word. In any case, the same notion, greeting someone, has various linguistic modes of expression, which shows how reductive and confusing language may be, hence the title of the poem, “No Way of Knowing.” Moreover, rather than designating objects or notions in an assertive way, nouns are questioned. The “street scenes?” (l. 4) are presented in the interrogative mode as they only have an ontological existence within the poem, those “scenes” having been destroyed by a bombing mentioned later in a parenthesis: “(Waterford explodes over the flagstones)” (l. 65). In such a context, like photography which captures a moment that cannot be retrieved in reality, language serves as a snapshot putting the present to death: the “street scenes” exist in the poem, but no longer in reality. In other words, linguistic signs “push back the dead chaos” (l. 68) as they constitute a substitutive substance, a “surface” (l. 14), an empty, if not artificial, form devoid of any content masking a deeper instability, hence the mention of “chaos,” referred to by Ovid as an infinite, unstable void in his Metamorphoses and reminiscent of vorticism, a 20th-century artistic movement claiming that art emerges from the vortex, or chaos, of emotions. By underlining this emptiness, the poetic persona goes backwards in the cognitive process of naming things: instead of pointing towards signified objects, signifiers highlight the absence of a material referent as epitomized by the hypallage “insubstantial pinnacle.”
“Insubstantial pinnacles” are part of a general movement from salience and verticality towards blurring and horizontality, as if what the persona calls the “surface” (l. 10) of words disintegrated. If the poem displays upright images such as “pinnacles” (l. 13) “slender heroine” (l. 61), and “snapdragons” (l. 55), which are flowers stemming vertically, such orientation is counterbalanced by images of collapse (“it disperses / In sheeted fragments, all somewhere around” ll. 30-31) and flatness (“The chain of lengthening days” l. 85). Lines such as “Street scenes? A blur of pavement” (l. 4) similarly follow a prosodic pattern of rise and fall, protasis and apodosis, while the form of the poem tends to move from verticality to horizontality: the first line counts 9 syllables whereas the penultimate line is formed of 17 syllables. Such a loss of relief is reminiscent of “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror” in which “the balloon pops” and hints at a spreading, a dissemination, if not a deconstruction, of linguistic forms, or surfaces as Ashbery calls them.
The theme of loss contributes to the linguistic deconstruction at stake in the poem. Destruction and apocalyptic undertones are conjured up by the reference to the Biblical “flood” line 14. The multiple references to war likewise bring about images of loss, death and devastation: the imagery evoked by “letters from the front” (l. 81) is as unequivocal as those conjured up by the bombing line 65 (“Waterford explodes”). Those lines may account for the use of a preterit form line 2 (“The knowledge of you a certain color had?”) in which the underlying elegiac subtext conveys mourning, and even melancholia since the dead hinted at are not named in the poem, which coincides with Freud’s definition of melancholia: the impossibility of naming what is lost. Naming and meaning are constantly negated (“no-places” l. 13, “No one” l. 35), phatic (“And then?” l. 1) or deferred throughout the poem thanks to run-on lines that create an effect of suspension: “Waiting / in vanilla corridors for an austere / Young nurse to appear” (ll. 58-60). The thematic images evoked in the poem therefore bring about a correlation between the loss of a physical being and the loss of a linguistic referent in which language appears as a melancholic act resulting from the impossibility of retrieving what is lost through the naming process.
Mutilation, fragmentation and deformation, which are intimately related to the themes of war and destruction, contribute to the analogy established between the crumbling body and the scattered language. Dismemberment on lines 30 to 31 (“The body is what this is all about and it disperses / In sheeted fragments”) echoes the persona who wants to “spell out” (l. 66) language. This interpenetration between mutilation and a linguistic shattering is reinforced by images of contamination such as “Insinuating itself in the background like mists” (l. 69), hence numerous shifts in pronouns challenging the consistency, homogeneity and unicity of language: “There were holidays past we used to / Match up, and yep, they fitted together” (ll. 17-18). Non-unicity and deformity are also hinted at when the persona states that the naming process superimposes a signification to the object’s, thus conveying an excess of meaning. For instance, on lines 48 to 51, the referred “evening” could be read as a mere linguistic sign, the persona thus metalinguistically implying that the word subverts or transforms its referent by adding an excessive meaning to it:
Kind of changes things. Not the color,
The quality of a handshake, the edge on someone’s breath,
So much as a general anxiety to get everything all added up.
Similarly, the lines “It is both the surface and the accidents / Scarring that surface” (l. 10-11) hint at a process of linguistic “scarring,” which is transformation and subversion, later illustrated by the word “hallo” (l. 47) which can be read as a vernacular deformation, a “scarring” of the word “hello”. Linguistic signs, more than being the trace of a lost referent corrupt their referred objects through an excess of meaning.
The role of the poetic persona is thus to re-unite and piece up those “bits and pieces of knowledge” (l. 79) notably through collage aesthetics such as the patching on the poem of fragments of direct speech: “Why can’t you / Spend the night, here in my bed, with my arms wrapped tightly around you?” (ll. 74-75). Analogies also constitute numerous juxtapositions and arrangements of the linguistic fragments evoked in the poem. Vision is thus connected to hearing in a comparison doubled with an alliteration in /s/: “The sunset is just starting to light up. / As when the songs start to go” (ll. 56-57). This aesthetics of collage and analogy also contributes to the juxtaposition and multiplication of voices in the poem. Collage was a technique used by cubist painters who wished to represent the multiplicity of viewpoints from which objects could be observed, echoing the claim that there is “No common vantage point, no point of view” (l. 33) in the poem, hinting at a disappearance of a unique poetic persona. Moreover, the influence of cubism is perceptible through the several anadiploses and syntactic inversions reminiscent of Stein’s cubist approach of writing: “Colors and names of colors? / The knowledge of you a certain color had?” (ll. 1-2); “calling to each other, / Calling each other strange” (l. 5-6). However, those different perspectives, more than conveying impersonal poetry, hint at a multiplicity of poetic personae answering each other in the poem as the anacoluthon line 29 shows: “Yes, but—there are no ‘yes buts’s.” It conjures up polyphony while operating a reconstruction of poetic form through a collage of poetic voices, which also contributes to the creation of a new poetic semiotic system.
Rather than metaphorizing or naming signified objects, poetic devices enable the persona to reconstitute referents through prosodic and synaesthetic strategies. The substance of “street scenes” is rendered through a binding alliteration in /s/ that is not without echoing “the spirit of the songs” (l. 71). More convincingly, the assonance in /ɪ/ on lines 82 to 83 reproduces the evoked sound: “But it made the chimes ring / If you listen you can hear them ringing still.” Language, and more precisely letters, become music, which contributes to the creation of a new poetic semiotic system: “spell out / This very simple word, put one note / After the other” (ll. 66-68). If the sense of hearing is brought about several times in the poem, the hypallage “perfume of fatality” (l. 63) also appeals to smell, which crosses the descriptive scope of language by granting the scene a synaesthetic texture. With such hypallages the poetic persona creates an atmosphere in which language is used not for intellectual but for physical, synaesthetic purposes: signs are not descriptions of objects or notions but sensory experiences. This accounts for the onomatopoeia “oom-pah” (l. 3): how to understand the meaning of such a word if not through the auditory experience it produces? Rather than keeping words “to the domain of metaphor” (l. 43), the ars poetica of the poem is therefore to transcend the “Rigid binary system of inducing truths” (l. 39). It compensates for the disjunction between signs and referents and re-establishes the essential, substantial knowledge of referred objects through an interpenetration between language, music, vision and smell so as to induce an emotional, physical response making the reader an active participant in the poetic experience.
All in all, far from being a labelling of objects, the poem is rather a representation of the world based on experience, a style influenced by the French symbolist poets, especially Mallarmé who declared:
Nommer un objet, c’est supprimer les trois quarts de la jouissance du poème qui est faite du bonheur de deviner peu à peu ; le suggérer, voilà le rêve.
However, as Marjorie Perloff explained, Ashbery is rather an anti-symbolist poet. Therefore, how to account for such proximity with symbolist theories? In his article “John Ashbery’s ‘A Wave’: Privileging the Symbol,” Kevin Clark shows that if Ashbery is “anti-symbolist in technique,” he does not totally “cuts off the referential dimension,” thus qualifying what Perloff suggested. The critic claims that “readers oscillate between […] a void and a more symbolist terrain with clearer landmarks,” notably accounting for the ambivalence between the mention and the destruction of referents in “No Way of Knowing,” a poem in which symbols, such as the apocalyptic “flood” (l. 14), contribute to the disappearance of any referentiality epitomized by the shifts in pronouns introducing both polyphony and personae that have no explicit referents. Ashbery’s collage aesthetics therefore produce a clash between symbolism and anti-symbolism that is also to be found in earlier poems such as “The Wave” in which “making sense” is made both abstract (a “far-off zone”) and concrete (with the referential image of “a dog”):
And the issue of making sense becomes such a far-off one.
Isn’t this sense—
This little dog of my life that I can see—that answers me
Like a dog, and wags its tail, though excitement and fidelity are
About all that ever get expressed?
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