John Ashbery's 'Definition of Blue'

Definition of Blue

The rise of capitalism parallels the advance of romanticism
And the individual is dominant until the close of the nineteenth century.
In our own time, mass practices have sought to submerge the personality
By ignoring it, which has caused it instead to branch out in all directions
Far from the permanent tug that used to be its notion of 'home'.
These different impetuses are received from everywhere
And are as instantly snapped back, hitting through the cold atmosphere
In one steady, intense line.

There is no remedy for this 'packaging' which has supplanted the old sensations.
Formerly there would have been architectural screens at the point where the action became most difficult
As a path trails off into shrubbery – confusing, forgotten, yet continuing to exist.
But today there is no point in looking to imaginative new methods
Since all of them are in constant use. The most that can be said for them further
Is that erosion produces a kind of dust or exaggerated pumice
Which fills space and transforms it, becoming a medium
In which it is possible to recognize oneself.

Each new diversion adds its accurate touch to the ensemble, and so
A portrait, smooth as glass, is built up out of multiple corrections
And it has no relation to the space or time in which it was lived.
Only its existence is a part of all being, and is therefore, I suppose, to be prized
Beyond chasms of night that fight us
By being hidden and present.

And yet it results in a downward motion, or rather a floating one
In which the blue surroundings drift slowly up and past you
To realize themselves some day, while, you, in this nether world which could not be better
Waken each morning to the exact value of what you did and said, which remains.

The poem (from The Double Dream of Spring, 1970) is a collage not of texts but of tones. Public discourses - a thesis on Romanticism, a sociological manifesto, a poetics ("fills space and transform it", a flow chart?), perhaps a gallery-style description of a painting... Robert Pinsky decides that the poem is abstract, but "too successfully funny in its daft skepticism" (The Situation of Poetry: Contemporary Poetry and Its Traditions, p. 81). The sentences refer to nothing, Pinsky thinks, but are too charming in manner to do this "convincingly". In the context of Ashbery's other work, though, this poem seems less funny, less "daft", quite shocking; and indeed I see quotes from this poem quoted without irony in reviews and essays. Alan Williamson (Introspection and Contemporary Poetry, p. 96) finds it shockingly utopian: "Endless self-consciousness makes every gesture the possible occasion for endless self-knowledge." Ta da! - surface and depth in endless circulation.

Towards the end of each stanza comes the stretchy point where high toned discursive subversion becomes or switches to visual description: we get an "intense line"; "dust" which "fills space" and in which it is possible to "recognise oneself"; chasms of night; and then finally a stanza which speaks of the title's blue in lines which perfect the kind of explicitly cod-peroratory twisted take-off which is nevertheless inexplicably satisfying. We will see much more of that signature in subsequent books. Partly this all sounds like an earnest attempt to parody an overly-earnest "reading" of an abstract painting, or perhaps the species of intense impressionistic readings of paintings that poets often specialise in, straining to attach these to a concept. But mostly it doesn't at all; the switches, interruptions, contradictions and blanknesses contain thoughts one might easily agree with ("But today there is no point in looking to imaginative new methods / Since all of them are in constant use"?) and this in itself is destabilising.

John Shoptaw (On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery's Poetry, p. 102) finds it a poem of inextricable embeddedness:

This kind of poem, neither overt protest nor parody, in which the lyric "I" only appears off-handedly as "I suppose", is "committed" in its own way. Far from its home of personal lyric discourse, "Definition" hacks away at the establishment by subjecting the impersonal academic discourses of history and sociology to its own uses.
Those uses involve Shoptaw's ideas of codes and subversion, and the requirements of one-size-fits-all commitment.

"In our own time"... the poem has lived an interesting life as a wry commentary on a century, notably by its inclusion (in the UK) in the Peter Forbes edited anthology, Scanning The Century, a book which largely follows the tastes Forbes demonstrated in his editorship of Poetry Review 1986-2002. Here the Ashbery poem interacts with other wry chronicles, notably Brodsky's 'History of the Twentieth Century (A Roadshow)' which might be seen to achieve many of the things claimed for Ashbery's poem (an achieved nothing; surface and depth inextricable...), by means of a rhyme-fuelled catalogue parodying the publicity of newspapers, flick-histories, that Dryden poem about a year[1]... Both poets write of exact calculations, though Brodsky's

Each of these lives has become a fact
from which you presumably can subtract
contrasts with Ashbery's final "the exact value of what you did and said, which remains." Both poets do describe lines shooting out, ambulating, continuing on:

1909 trots a fine straight line.
Three Lives are published by Gertrude Stein.
(On the strength of this book, if its author vies
for the man of the year, she sure qualifies.)
A Romantic spirit of the age, flying so high above, it leaves comic arrangements - and, in this view, those "blue surroundings" which drift up to "realize themselves" are a love of the eternal, disappearing off in a lovely ascent to leave a starker "nether world" which is where you awake. That's one of the tones collaged in, the one which springs those signature moments with a creep of glow.

[1] Annus Mirabilis

By Abena Sutherland

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