Friday, September 6, 2013

Incising wax tablets: John Lyly, John Ashbery and literary fashion, style, survival

The pretensions of a past will some day
Make it over into progress, a growing up,
As beautiful as a new history book
With uncut pages, unseen illustrations.
             -- "Song" from The Double Dream of Spring



John Ashbery is today's most-laureled U.S. poet.
Clearly pegged as an American immortal as his baffling verse takes on a more autumnal cast in volume after volume, John Ashbery, now 86, has long attracted and frustrated me as a reader.

Ashbery's poetry rests upon a unique voice on the printed page, with innovations in the sentence as a unit of meaning, influenced by rapidly changing, disorienting figurative language. This thickly applied characteristic manner oddly obscures the person behind it and the experiences that may have generated what readers encounter in the poetry. You might think that fatal for a lyric poet, but the very disconnect has helped increase Ashbery's mystique for readers seeking an escape from contemporary poets' trolling their experiences for images and tidily crafting the result in (usually) small packages of free verse.

Title page of John Lyly's 1578 book
I'm convinced the creative writer in English whom Ashbery most resembles is John Lyly (1554?-1606), the author of early novel "Euphues" (1578) and a popular sequel. The name is known now mainly to English majors, despite the huge fashion enjoyed by Lyly's lush, ornamental prose in its time and well into the 17th century. His work bequeathed to the language the little-used words "euphuism" and "euphuistic." Lyly can fairly be described as a permanent but minor author in English literary history, one who held sway for a time and influenced other writers, including the young Shakespeare, who also mocked him indirectly in "Love's Labour's Lost. "

My prediction is that, if there are  English majors a century from now, Ashbery will hold a similar position. As hard as his work is to teach, Ashbery will be a durable fixture in the academy, little read outside it. No shame there; most authors have left no name of consequence to posterity. Ashbery will retain a niche, as Lyly has, but it will be more out of the way than his admirers today dare to dream.

Sports and eccentrics as they are, it's almost axiomatic that of course Ashbery and Lyly don't resemble each other closely in style or technique: Lyly wrote prose, yet loaded it with a welter of poetic and rhetorical devices. English prose fiction in the late 16th century was malleable and thinly backgrounded: significantly, its history is usually connected to the emergence a century-and-a-quarter later of Swift and Defoe, exemplars of the plain style. Ashbery, on the other hand, veers off belatedly from a rich tradition in his genre, specifically that represented by William Wordsworth.

My wife, Susan Raccoli, recently bought me a comparative edition of Wordsworth's personal epic, "The Prelude" (at IndyReads Books). As I reimmersed myself in it after many years away,  I was suddenly struck by the need to find a new way into Ashbery: How do writers say things, using tools and materials available to us all as native speakers, and come to say things so differently? That led me back to John Lyly, because just as Lyly in pursuing a new (and ultimately vanishing) trail in prose fiction knowingly masked a storyteller's true business by decorating characterization and dialogue so elaborately, so has Ashbery forged a style that expansively, resolutely veils the poetic exploration of personality begun by Wordsworth.

William Wordsworth at 28, the "Prelude" period
"The Prelude" is the starting point for anyone seeking the first flowering of the personal lyric writ large in English poetry. I was reading the first version (1799), a poem of relatively modest proportions, essentially a verse letter to a friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I marveled anew at how any experience and natural or human phenomenon that Wordsworth holds up to view in this poem is calmly absorbed into "the growth of the poet's mind."

Ashbery is among the most celebrated heirs of what Harold Bloom has called "the internalization of the quest-romance" that Wordsworth demonstrates in "The Prelude." And though he has applied his wide knowledge of verse technique, Ashbery practices mainly a lightly, often gracefully stressed, variation on free verse, the lines varying in length and internal regularity.

Wordsworth introduced a new kind of voice into poetry, made all the more remarkable because he modeled his large-scale blank verse (unrhymed iambic-pentameter lines) on John Milton's "Paradise Lost." But a wholesale change in diction and rhetoric had to be forged to accommodate the radical change of focus from a Protestant Christian intepretation of the first chapters of Genesis to a young man's struggle to understand his own experiences and how they shaped him.

In linking Lyly and Ashbery, my focus will be on style — a wonderful, commodious concept, but a peculiar one in the literary lexicon. The language we use to describe writing is often an extension of sense impressions. We say a literary work has texture, scope and breadth, echoes and resonance; it displays clumsiness or adroitness; more rarely it may be fragrant or malodorous, sometimes bitter, sweet or salty. Of common words applied to literature, only "style" originates in what writers do physically: In antiquity, it designated a tool with a sharpened point used to incise letters in wax; its other end was blunt, employed to rub the wax smooth, ready to receive new words. (That meaning survives in our word "stylus".)

More than two columns of my one-volume Oxford English Dictionary are devoted to the word "style," and the definition just given is the earliest and most concrete. We would not want to be without subsequent meanings of such a rich word, yet it may be salutary to pare those away now and again, especially in Ashbery's case. Stylistically, his work has been examined every which way: his use of pronouns and their floating or hidden antecedents, his juxtaposition of "high"and "low" ways of speaking, his philosophical links to Mannerism and Surrealism, his appropriation of figures with hard Greek names from classical rhetoric. And if style makes the man as well, is he boulevardier or recluse? Scholar-patrician or l'homme moyen sensuel? All the possibilities have been weighed.

Away with that! My obsession with the original meaning of "style" is to imagine writers bending over their work like other craftsmen, incising words and punctuation and grouping these elements in sentences and paragraphs.

Let's see what this image of style tells us about how the writer takes the native tongue, to which his basic relationship was formed long before he attained a writer's self-consciousness, and draws from it what he will eventually share with the public. In this process, the sentence is the main unit of meaning. What a writer puts between each pair of periods is instructive — complicated, in the case of poets, by where they choose to begin the next line. Allowing for the charm of poetry's sounds, essentially the works of  Lyly and Wordsworth and Ashbery are all embedded in the printed page as first processed by the silent reader. That reader gets something fundamental about style — its peculiar majesty —  from Wordsworth, but  for the most  part its excrescences, its potentially blinding  fussiness, from Lyly and Ashbery.

What do we find typically incised by the two Johns?

Well, this (from Ashbery's "Silhouette" (As We Know):  "And the way / Though discontinuous, and intermittent, sometimes / Not heard of for years at a time, did / Nonetheless, move up, although, to his surprise / It was inside the house / And always getting narrower."

And this (from Lyly's "Euphues," in which an "old gentleman in Naples" is lecturing the hero): "If therefore thy father had been as wise an husbandman as he was a fortunate husband, or thy mother as good a huswife as she was a happy wife, if they had been both as good gard'ners to keep their knot as they are grafters to bring forth such fruit, or as cunning painters as they were happy parents, no doubt they had sowed hemp before wheat, that is, discipline before affection, they had set hyssop with thyme, that is, manners with wit, the one to aid the other; and to make thy dexterity more, they had to cast a black ground for their white work, that is, they had mixed threats with fair looks."

And now this pair (I feel like an eye doctor, trying out lenses on you: Clearer, blurry, about the same?):

From Ashbery's "Breezy Stories" (Shadow Train): "A slatternly welcome / Suits some as well, no doubt, but the point is / There are still others whom we know nothing about / And who are growing, it seems, at a rate far in excess of the legislated norm, for whom the 'psychological consequences" // Of the forest primeval of our inconsistency, nay, our lives, / If you prefer, and you can quote me, could be 'numbing.'"

From Euphues (describing the hero, [following Lyly's spelling]): "This young gallant, of more wit then wealth, and yet of more wealth then wisdom, seeing himself inferior to none in pleasant conceipts, thought himself superior to all in honest conditions, insomuch that he deemed himself so apt in all things that he gave himself almost to nothing but practising of those things commonly which are incident to these sharp wits, fine phrases, smooth quipping, merry taunting, using jesting without mean, and abusing mirth without measure."

Minute decisions of craft animate both writers, including games with loose yet intricate syntax, a tone that blends didacticism and entertainment, and precise use of punctuation, especially commas, in an effort to show they are in earnest about being clear.

Lyly is more explicitly sententious and more concerned with balanced phrases (alliteration always being the thumb on the scale). Ashbery tosses sentences out in front of him like balls of yarn, curious as to what they will stick to or pick up. Lyly knows where he is going with each thought, but teases the reader about his willingness ever to stop.

Both authors seek to disarm the reader with humor and sprezzatura  — that apparent ease in difficult maneuvers that Lyly's Italian contemporary Castiglione recommended in The Book of the Courtier. How better to explain the jerky motion, with commas as speed bumps,  in the first Ashbery example, or the proliferation of garden imagery used by Lyly's old Neapolitan gentleman?

What a writer cuts into the wax tablet of language and allows to be published is the product of his workshop. Syntax and vocabulary are the raw materials. It's granted to only a few to make something strong, even iconic, out of the common stuff at hand.  Wordsworth did so, but Lyly and Ashbery are among the craftsmen whose idiosyncrasies remind readers that craftsmanship is merely a promising way toward a hoped-for fresh apprehension of life, an open field where new vistas, fortunately uncluttered, always remain new.

My Renaissance textbook from college includes this editorial comment about the Elizabethan author, after citing his "tedious if ingenious intensity": "Lyly's clever blend  of stylistic elegance, amorous narrative, didacticism and satire made Euphues a dazzling popular success." With just a few tweaks, this description could apply to the much-lauded Ashbery as well. Biographically, there's a crucial difference: Lyly turned his hand to writing plays and soon fell from favor at court, dying in obscurity at about 52; Ashbery has published into his old age, the work always commanding attention, and his many honors capped by a National Humanities Medal awarded in 2012 by President Obama.

The notion that the arts improve us and join other aspects of life in making us superior to our forebears dies hard. Literary history is probably a matter of cycles rather than progress, despite "the pretensions of a past." Reputations rise and sink in certain familiar patterns.

The optimism of the quatrain from "Song" I've used as epigraph here is among the shy dreams with which Ashbery's poetry is loaded. It is as hard to recognize any "growing up" in our overburdened literary heritage as it is in the accumulating sorrows of our political history. That's why the new history book in "Song" can remain beautiful, "with uncut pages, unseen illustrations."

But, inevitably, we want to open it, cut the pages, and see the pictures.