Sunday, November 11, 2007

Rich Murphy, "Spectacle and Aporia"

Rich Murphy

Spectacle and Aporia in Ted Kooser and John Ashbery

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Abstract: The paper recognizes Derrida’s understanding of the idea of a non-transcendental sublime (aporia) and explores the difference between aporia and Roland Barthe’s idea of “spectacle of excess.” The paper will acknowledge that the dichotomy is false but credible. This author will then use the two lenses to analyze poems by Ted Kooser who is considered one of America’s most popular poets and John Ashbery who is considered by many critics to be the most important poet writing in English today. This author finds that as poetry becomes Modern and familiar, it becomes a thing of beauty and a spectacle of excess. When it is postmodern, it is a spectacle of the sublime.

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Beauty is a blind alley. It is a mountain peak which once reached leads nowhere. That is why in the end we find more to entrance in El Greco than in Titian, in the incomplete achievement of Shakespeare than in the consummate success of Racine. Too much has been written about beauty. That is why I have written a little more. Beauty is that which satisfies the aesthetic instinct. But who wants to be satisfied? It is only the dullard that enough is as good as a feast. Let us face it: beauty is a bit of a bore.
Cakes and Ale, W. Somerset Maugham

The question of postmodernism is also, or first of all, a question of expressions of thought: in art, literature, philosophy, and politics … a kind of work, a long obstinate, and highly responsible work concerned with investigating the assumptions implicit in modernity.
The Postmodern Condition, Jean-Francois Lyotard

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In his book Mythologies, Roland Barthes’ first chapter “The World of Wrestling” analyzes the “grandiloquence” of the spectacle of the so-called sport and finds in it that of the ancient theatre and Greek drama. Barthes celebrates wrestling because he sees that in its grandiloquence is the morality passion play of ancient Greece. In the chapter, he tells us that the sport is “the spectacle of excess” (15). He finds in its grandiloquence the same “as that of the ancient theatre, whose principle, language and props (masks and buskins) concurred in the exaggeratedly visible explanation of a Necessity” (16). Later he continues,

“There is no more a problem of truth in wrestling than in the theatre. In both, what is expected is the intelligible representation of moral situations which are usually private. The emptying out of the interiority to the benefit of its exterior signs, this exhaustion of the content by the form, is the very principle of triumphant classical art.” (18)

In finding the structure of wrestling to be that of ancient theatre in general and ancient Greek drama in particular, Barthes is recognizing what James Joyce recognized when he wrote Ulysses. Joyce noticed that recognizable patterns and harmonies in literature satisfy the audience and make legitimate the symbols of the day, suggesting that they indeed do hold something. However, where Joyce seems to be making critical commentary on his day with his anti-hero de-legitimizing his society’s behavior and re-legitimizing ancient Greek drama, Barthes is legitimizing contemporary activities as dramatic, religious rituals as worthy as Greek literature. He is finding the beauty that lies in the spectacle of excess in popular culture. Joyce holds the present up to the mythological past for comparison in order to make it new. Barthes suggests spectacle can’t be made new. In fact, he sees that beauty is a meta-narrative for the spectacle of excess.

The reader comes away with the idea that using the “spectacle of excess” as a lens he/she may examine other events in our society and find the beauty of Greek drama. The reader also comes away with the notion that spectacle of excess may be modernity’s beauty. One can observe it most easily in staged events that are meant to attract the masses to witness “Suffering, Defeat, and Justice” played out (19). Examples of it can be found on reality television and staged programming such as sitcoms as well. Barthes suggests that beauty is the emptying out of symbolic form inherent in the spectacle of excess to the satisfaction of the audience. If one looks closely at poetic works in modernism, one can see that the poets are performing that function. Just as we find in popular culture’s staged events, we find the spectacle of excess possesses beauty in poetry. Poetry that resolves irony with the justice of closure is using beauty to articulate its experience. Beauty might be said to be the intelligible representation of moral situations that are often private and that are emptied out of their interiority to the benefit of its exterior signs and the audience (18).

It is the satisfaction of justice witnessed that one finds in the spectacle and in the legitimating power of its performance of morality that is also known as beauty. The satisfaction of harmony, symmetry, and the promise and performance of oneness to audiences / “spectators” builds society and culture with its shared experience. This same satisfaction found in recognizing ourselves in a storyline or a scene in a play or an image in a poem is the joy of recognizing the language game as familiar and safe. We know the game and if that isn’t enough we are witnesses of the situation in the literature after all. We are present metaphorically.

Throughout modern poetry we find great beauty in its spectacle of excess in every line, of every sentence. The poem starts with the promise that needs performing. The performing is the emptying of the symbols. The emptying is one of alliteration, allusion, simile, contemporary images, and other devices of harmony that reassure the audience of purging of symbol that is taking place. Even if the images are ugly, if they are familiar they satisfy the reader.

However, there is always a place where the poet in his/her attempts to give the spectators / audience the emotional experience of the plot or event beyond language. When the author attempts to inspire and to possess words with a kind of madness and divine spirit as Longinus might suggest, the author ‘“carries the hearer along with the [sublime] involuntarily”’ with ‘“a kind of violence rather than by cool conviction”’ (Shaw 14). Kant clarifies the sublime as something not in nature by telling us that the sublime is contained in our minds. Derrida is summarized on the secular postmodern sublime: “The experience and pleasure of the sublime do not stem from the promise of something noumenal, outside a given frame, but rather the perpetual, yet always provisional, activity of framing itself, from the parergon” (Shaw 118). The spectacle of beauty sets up the audience for the sublime moment. Beauty frames sublime as modern poetry. By “set up” I mean allowing the reader to trust the writer for three-quarters of the way through a text with familiar representational conventions until the writer confronts the reader with the idea that the only conventions we have are the ones we make, driving the poem’s point home. Modern poetry may or may not have the Romantic’s transcendental sublime. However, it is most often of the Longinus variety of sublime of inexplicable passion.

If we recognize the non-transcendental sublime or aporia, we find that we are “without way or passage,” at an abyss, something open and unresolved that inspires doubt and “difficulty in choosing” (Royle 92). We have something more threatening than beauty. In his book Aporias, Derrida defines it as,

“a matter of the nonpassage, or rather from the experience of the nonpassage, the experience of what happens and is fascinating in this nonpassage, paralyzing in this separation in a way that is not necessarily negative: before a door, threshold, border, a line, or simply the edge or the approach of the other as such. It should be a matter of what, in sum, appears to block our way or to separate us in the very place where it would no longer be possible to constitute a problem, a project, or a projection, that is, at the point where the very project or the problematic task becomes impossible and where we are exposed, absolutely without protection, without problem, and without prosthesis, without possible substitution, singularly exposed in our absolute and absolutely naked uniqueness, that is to say disarmed, delivered to the other, incapable even of sheltering ourselves behind what could still protect the interiority of a secret.” (12)

Aporia is a concern for all frames, a reminder that there are no frames except for the ones we make. The poem is not going to lead the reader to a sublime moment but challenge the frames of the familiar, the beautiful, the harmony at every turn of phrase. So when the familiar or conventional performs as a frame or parergon, aporia emerges. The frame promises convention while aporia disturbs as the nonpassage. However, it isn’t a transcendental sublime. There isn’t an imitation of a higher power. Perhaps Jean-Francois Lyotard explains the Postmodern sublime aporia best when he says, “’Presenting the existence of something unpresentable. Showing that there is something we can conceive of that we can neither see nor show’” (29). In Simon Malpas’ book The Postmodern, he summarizes Lyotard:

“The postmodern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher: the text he writes or the work he creates is not in principle governed by pre-established rules and cannot be judged . . . by the application of given categories to this text or work. Such rules and categories are what the work or text is investigating.” (30)

The difference between modern poetry and postmodern poetry can be attributed to modern poetry’s putting forward the sublime as “missing contents,” and postmodern poetry as ignoring beauty and form to attempt to put forward the unpresentable. In fact Lyotard sees the relationship between modern and postmodern not as historical moments but as styles, shifting back and forth. Modern art first may be Postmodern until it is familiar or conventional and then it is Modern. With Barthes’ idea of spectacle and Derrida’s sublime aporia as lenses, this paper argues that when poetry becomes modern and familiar, it becomes a thing of beauty, a spectacle of excess. When it is postmodern, it is a spectacle of the sublime.

The poetry of Ted Kooser and John Ashbery bears this out. Kooser is the most popular poet in the USA and has recently been its Poet Laureate. Ashbery is said to be the most important poet writing in English today. However, Ashbery’s work is unknown or inaccessible to most of the population in the USA. How does one explain this apparent paradox? One may reply that one is modern, and one is postmodern. One writes beautiful poetry or poetry that embraces the spectacle of excess and attempts the sublime at some point in each poem. The other writes poetry employing sublime aporia as its instrumental tool. One writes using pre-established rules, and one does not, as Lyotard explains. But a closer look at the two poets’ work may be more revealing.

In Ted Kooser’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Shadows and Delights, any of the poems would serve as an example of modern poetry using my definition. “Tattoo,” the short second poem in the collection, is a poem beautiful in its spectacle and will serve my purposes in this short paper. (6) “Tattoo” is modern in that Kooser is not looking for dignity in his choice of subject but revealing the subject’s dignity to the reader. It is modern also because readers expect the revealing, the emptying of the poetry. Any subject is fair game. The images he brings that include a thug grown old are familiar to Americans: a yard sale, a shoulder with a tattoo, a schoolyard bully. What is new in this poem is not the images. There are harmonies in his walking between the tables, the bruise gone “soft and blue,” and youthful vanity gone bony with age’s self-recognition and yet insisting on what was once (6). Even the abused broken tools as fragments of the bully’s youth or stories of that youth are familiar and are a spectacle of excess. It is a great poem of a defeated middle-class suburbanite persona finding justice.


What once was meant to be a statement—
a dripping dagger held in the fist
of a shuddering heart—is now just a bruise
on a bony old shoulder, the spot
where vanity once punched him hard
and the ache lingered on. He looks like
someone you had to reckon with,
strong as a stallion, fast and ornery,
but on this chilly morning, as he walks
between the tables at a yard sale
with the sleeves of his tight black T-shirt
rolled up to show us who he was,
he is only another old man, picking up
broken tools and putting them back,
his heart gone soft and blue with stories.

The reader knows this story of withering powers and regret brought on by growing old and so anticipates “[t]he emptying out of the interiority to the benefit of its exterior signs” (Barthes 18). Kooser heightens the story by using the familiar motorcycle culture imagery and flattens the magnified image that the bullied persona has of the predator using the yard sale and the line “only another old man” (6). The satisfaction that the reader receives from the execution of this poem is the same as Barthes reveals in wrestling spectacles. It is the execution of justice, a kind of justice that Nietzsche attributes to slaves and Christians, a justice long after the crimes were committed, a kind of no justice that is not witnessed except in the minds of the victims. The language and props . . . concur in exaggeratedly visible explanation and description (Barthes16).

What Kooser may be making new in the “make it new” sense of modernism is the familiar, common everyday world. He also may be making new the poem’s subject, the persona and not the biker. The poem may be read as the persona and the other old man as one person, using the conventional double. The persona is not a witness recording the events a la Confessional School but the poet as tough guy gone “blue with stories” (6). The first line introduces the reader to “a statement” of youth and then reveals what the symbol tattoos in every poem of the youthful male poet: one of masculine passion and virility. A reader unschooled might contend that Kooser’s poem is an attempt to “show us who he was.” The broken tools are his apology to the reader for the fragments that he is shoring against his ruin.

In fact, Kooser attempts to nudge the reader to consider the sublime is in his line, “rolled up to show us who he was” (6). On one level the reader is expecting “who he is” because the sleeves are rolled up and he dresses as in his youth but bringing in the past tense throws the justice-seeking reader off the end of the line with satisfaction while the line points at the terror of the inevitable powerlessness of old age. Here he is also humbly offering to the reader the fragments of his former virility as a poet. Read on either level, the persona is performing the same “necessity” as Barthes’ wrestlers whether the reader understands the poem to be about the bully of bike culture or the life of a poet.

In John Ashbery’s As We Know, the title poem is a good example of his developed style and typical of the shorter poems in the book. Where Kooser meets the reader with the beauty of familiar images and leads the reader to the moment of the sublime that is the subject, Ashbery’s poems are inaccessible to most readers to this day and this poem is no exception. However, once the reader recognizes that Ashbery is not meeting the reader on the reader’s terms but reminding the reader with each sentence that language itself can merely point or gesture at the poet’s subject, the reader has a chance to come to grips with his poetry. The busy reader going about the day “making a living” and pretending that, and taking for granted that what is before him is knowable, thanks Kooser for coming into the reader’s world of pretense and escorting sensibility to Longinus’ insight. Busy readers are confronted with aporias that make up an Ashbery poem. In fact the title itself takes a common notion and turns it on its head. The confidence of the common platitude becomes a meditation on the fleeting nature of knowing.

As We Know

All that we see is penetrated by it—
The distant treetops with their steeple (so
Innocent), the stair, the windows’ fixed flashing—
Pierced full of holes by the evil that is not evil,
The romance that is not mysterious, the life that is not life,
A present that is elsewhere.

And further in the small capitulations
Of the dance, you rub elbows with it,
Finger it. That day you did it
Was the day you had to stop, because the doing
Involved the whole fabric, there was no other way to appear.
You slid down on your knees
For those precious jewels of spring water
Planted on the moss, before they got soaked up
And you teetered on the edge of this
Calm street with its sidewalks, its traffic,

As though they are coming to you.
But there was on one in the noon glare,
Only birds like secrets to find out about
And home to get to, one of these days.

The light that was shadowed then
Was seen to be our lives.
Everything about us that love might wish to examine,

Then put away for a certain length of time, until
The whole is to be reviewed, and we turned
Toward each other, to each other.
The way we had come was all we could see
And it crept up on us, embarrassed
That there is so much to tell now, really now.

The first sentence / section of “As We Know” is an example. In the first line, “All that we see is penetrated by it--” what does Ashbery mean by “it:” light, evil that is not evil, life that is not live, air (74)? Any of these will do for now. We can see light moving through the trees surrounding a steeple, innocent because of human declaration only and the windows flashing, glaring as well as the metal lining that prevents leaks. But what is described as an “evil that is not evil . . . life that is not life” adds intricacy but does not necessarily block or shade the penetration that is splashed at the reader’s feet: “A present that is elsewhere” (74). The reader has little chance at getting familiar with any image because the images that he gives the reader are fragmented. The reader must see the poem’s imagery as a part of the process that is the experience of experience, the poet insisting the experience of the poem’s now. The giving and taking away that he does in this first sentence itself and through it is aporia, the nontranscendental sublime of Derrida: the fascinating, paralyzing, not necessarily negative experience of the nonpassage (12). The first lines permeate with the unpresentable now of a Barnett Newman painting. It also demonstrates through lines 2-5 the penetration of a present that is not, at least any longer. The permeation theme calls to mind Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.

The second section invests the reader in a drama without the “we” of the first. The drama or “dance” is the anticipation of the now. During the dance of life we merely rub elbows with the present, perhaps “finger it,” but trying to wear it, one has to stop because it is impossible to appear the way one appears already by living in the present (74). The most one can do is get on one’s knees and soak up the precious jewels of the moment. The drama spills over into the third passage where it becomes the regret and fear of a past now. As close as we get to capturing the moment passing is our teetering on the “edge of this / Calm street” (74). Throughout the building of the reader’s investment in the second passage, aporia reigns. “[T]he small capitulations / Of the dance,” is a case in point. The negative of capitulation is undercut by the dance (and vice versa), keeping the reader in the present tense of “finger it” (74).

The third section reminds this reader of the existential Lowell lines “nobody’s here--/ only skunks” in “Skunk Hour” (95). The anxiety of Ashbery’s first section is denied by the second line: “no one in the noon glare, / Only birds” (74). Unlike Lowell though, Ashbery presents aporia in the first two lines and in the “secrets to find out about,” where we recognize that we don’t recognize (74). The home the reader is urged toward is not made of wood or brick or stone. It is the reader’s demise.

The last section picks up on death with the idea of the shadows of lives and again includes the voice along with the reader: “Everything about us” (74). Here the voice suggests that the reader, the voice, and everything is shadowed (or is shadow) so that love’s examination of the reader and voice is not possible. The nuance of the lines “and we turned / Toward each other, to each other” reminds the reader of the relationship of the poet and the reader, and that even this confrontation of love on the page cannot capture the magnitude of now’s so much to tell (74). The light and shadow as lives, love examining, the gathering of experience, our way that crept on us, and the embarrassment of experience’s stories are all examples of aporia in this poem. Over and over the poem demonstrates to the reader the fragmented process of consciousness, the rung by rung climb up Wittgenstein’s ladder resulting in this poem.

What David Shapiro in his essay “The Mirror Staged” refers to as “deferred sense” or “meaning absenting itself” in Ashbery’s poetry is what Derrida means by aporia. Where we may find aporia at the height of a modernist poem is where the poet attempts to go beyond words to bring the passion of his/her meaning to the reader. Postmodern poetry distorts in order to rescue the value of distortion (5). In the distortion is the poem tracing the mind tracing a poem (11). Postmodern poetry attempts aporia in every sentence if not in the fragmentation of imagery; unresolved irony is key. In every “denial of intrinsic logos” the reader is confronted with the postmodern sublime (30). These qualities in postmodern poetry are confrontational in a culture that survives on sound bites, platitudes, clichés, and jingles. The pretense of communication demands that its participants be reminded of the pretense. Line after line, sentence after sentence of rescuers of distortion’s value is aporia reminding the reader of possibility, other realities waiting for them. The poet’s job then becomes one of merely suggesting a statement through the poet’s variations on themes, promoting a healthy respect for the gap between the signified and signifier.

Ashbery’s poem “Litany” is in the same collection of poems. Too long to examine in this paper, however, the 65-page poem is made up two columns “to be read as two simultaneous but independent monologues” (2). What kind of trick is this? This kind: the poem itself is aporia, extended parallel tracts that don’t meet. In the first 31 lines of the first column ending in “Code names for silence” and the first 26 lines of the second column ending in “About to happen” we can see subtly opposing or better yet isolated voices: one embracing the past and the other embracing a fantasy future (4).



For someone like me
The simple things
Like having toast or
Going to church are
Kept in one place.

Like having wine and cheese.

The parents of the town
Pissing elegantly escape knowledge
Once and for all. The
Snapdragons consumed in the wind
Of fire and rage far over
The streets as they end.

The casual purring of a donkey
Rouses me from my accounts:
What given, what gifts. The air
Stands straight up like a tail.

He spat on the flowers.

Also for someone
Like me the time flows round again
With things I did in it.
I wish to keep my differences

And to retain my kinship
To the rest. That is why
I raise these flowers all around.
They do not stand for flowers or
Anything pretty they are
Code names for the silence.


So this must be a hole
Of cloud
Mandate or trap
But haze that casts
The milk of enchantment

Over the whole town,
Its scenery, whatever
Could be happening
Behind tall hedges
Of dark, lissome knowledge.

The brown lines persist
In explicit sex
Matters like these
No one can care about,
“Noone.” That is I’ve said it
Before and no one
Remembers except that elf.

Around us are signposts
Pointing to the past,
The old-fashioned, pointed
Wooden kind. And nothing directs
To the present that is

About to happen

The voice of column one is infatuated with the assurance of one concrete place perhaps being served wine and cheese at a reception would provide, and with the stillness of dead streets and “air standing straight up like a tail” of a donkey, a stubborn animal whose breathing complaint spits on flowers. In an effort to escape knowledge of reality, the voice is one living in the past, with time flowing around it again containing things it did (3). The voice raises silence around it as though silence were flowers or anything pretty and reaffirming.

In the second column the voice is no place, a cloud that is a trap or “milk of enchantment” (3). As the pissing “Parents of the town” in the first column “escape knowledge” by living in the past, the concrete place here is the scenery “behind hedges of dark lissome knowledge” (3). Matters of explicit sex that “No one can care about” are not acknowledged by people (3). Avoiding knowledge seems to be the only thing these two voices have in common. Only an elf remembers everything in the second column. As the flowers are codes of silence in the first column, signposts point to the past in the second where nothing directs “to the present that is” and is “about to happen” (4) As one voice lives in the silence of the past, the other lives in fantasy, the place of the future. Neither is attempting to live in the present, perhaps an impossible but perhaps worthy task. The aporetic gap exists between the two approaches that the two voices use to live life: through the past and through fantasy. Ashbery is commenting on the fleeting nature of the present. If the poem is read as critical commentary on the postmodern world we live in, it is because the voices in the poem flee from notions of the present, fearing perhaps their impotence regarding it. Neither voice recognizes the possibility of the sublime moment of now.

Modern poetry through representation makes new the subject matter of its poetry. The transformation of the subject matter is an attempt at therapy for the writer and reader, an attempt to reveal the beauty and sublime in what might be construed as ugly: Pound’s imagist poem “In a Station at the Metro,” for example. Substitute Barthes’ spectacle of excess for beauty, and it makes new representation in Kooser’s poetry as it does in modern poetry. Through the excess emerges the sublime moment of the poem.

Postmodernism interrogates representation, and using aporias confronts attempts at therapy with a relentless barrage of possibility at a foundational level of language. So Ashbery’s poetry is a spectacle in its public display and an excess of a different kind. Nothing physical is being represented. Ashbery’s excess is the relentless line by line attempt at the unpresentable. The relentless aporias are reminders of the possible worlds contemporary society refuses to inhabit.

If the world of modern poetry uses the spectacle of excess as beauty for therapeutic purposes, then it is where it was in Tennyson’s day, or worse it is a reassurance that all is right with the world that capitalism controls. If so, poetry substitutes for a snooze or a venture to a flea market on a Sunday afternoon. Modern poetry gets lost in its compromise with the reader and beauty. Modern poetry may indeed save lives one at a time. However, postmodern poetry calls for among other things last ditch gestures. It challenges the concept of making it new with exhilarating meditations on the possible worlds that are being lost in each moment of the now.

Works Cited:

Ashbery, John. As We Know. NYC: Penguin Books, 1979.

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. NYC: Hill and Wang, 1972.

Derrida, Jacque. Aporias. Tr. Thomas Dutoit. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1993.

Kooser, Ted. Delights & Shadows. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2004.

Lowell, Robert. The Selected Poems. NYC: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 1977.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Sublime. Ed. Philip Shaw. NYC: Routledge, 2006.

Malpas Simon. The Postmodern. NYC: Routledge, 2005.

Royle, Nicholas. Jacques Derrida. NYC: Routledge, 2003.

Shapiro, David. John Ashbery: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia UP, 1979.

Rich Murphy’s credits include a chapbook Great Grandfather; poems in Rolling Stone, Poetry Magazine, Grand Street, New Letters, Negative Capability, Confrontation Magazine, West 47, Aesthetica Review, foam:e, and Spiral Bridge; and essays in Fulcrum, International Journal of the Humanities, Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning and Fringe.

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