America is a fun country...

Franz Kline, Mahoning (1956)

[Image source: The painting is in the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York]

America is a fun country. Still, there are aspects of it which I would prefer not to think about. I am sure, for instance, that the large "chain" stores with their big friendly ads and so-called "discount" prices actually charge higher prices so as to force smaller competitors out of business. This sort of thing has been going on for at least 200 years and is one of the cornerstones on which our mercantile American society is constructed, like it or not. What with all our pious expostulations and public declarations of concern for the poor and the elderly, this is a lot of bunk and our own president plays it right into the lap of big business and uses every opportunity he can to fuck the consumer and the little guy. We might as well face up to the fact that this is and always has been a part of our so-called American way of life.  ... 

(From John Ashbery, The Vermont Notebook , 1975)

The president in 1975 was the unelected Gerald Ford, who took over after Nixon's resignation in 1974.

Still, Ashbery's poem seems an eminently fitting welcome to the new era of Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson.

Reading this today, it seems clear enough that the "higher prices" (where we might have expected "lower prices") are the price paid for indifferent environmental destruction. America is one of the most polluting countries on earth. In gross volume of pollutants, it is second only to China. But in per capita pollution, it's way ahead of China, and right up there with Australia and Saudi Arabia, the dirtiest nations on earth. (2011 figures from the Union of Concerned Scientists.)

Somewhat paradoxically, all three nations - USA, Australia and Saudi Arabia - have surprisingly high poverty rates; compared, for example, to European nations. Paradoxical, because it costs money to be a polluter. The main polluters are rich nations. But maybe there's also something about massive social inequalities that links with the unfettered burning of fossil fuels.

Child Poverty Rates in the USA:


Ashbery's diatribe is not, of course, quite what it seems to be. Ashbery is having a lot of parodic fun with slipshod phrases like "so-called" and "cornerstones". Something is being performed here: it's an almost typical rant, contemptuous of "pious expostulations" and sentimental for "the little guy".

In The Vermont Notebook as a whole, Ashbery's country-bus rides lead to a direct critique of lazy distinctions between the rural/natural and the urban/artificial, along lines we might now associate with queer theory.

Christopher Schmidt writes of Ashbery's career preoccupation "to misrepresent the line between the natural and the artificial, and to recuperate what is normally deemed waste..."

(Christopher Schmidt, "The Queer Nature of Waste in John Ashbery's The Vermont Notebook", Arizona Quarterly, Vol 68 No. 3 (Autumn 2012), pp. 71 - 102.) )

And the theme of waste in The Vermont Notebook is picked up again here:

Brian Glavey: The Wallflower Avant-Garde: Modernism, Sexuality and Queer Ekphrasis (Oxford University Press, 2016)


Reading Ashbery as an environmentally-concerned poet might seem rather ridiculous. But I expect we'll get used to it. As it becomes clearer that hard capitalism wants a trial of strength about the environment, we'll perhaps start to read a lot of things differently. We'll see that Ashbery's work, for instance, is linked in manifold ways, some rather obvious and some less so, with the things that are being wrested from all of us.

Douglas Crase and John Ashbery at Niagara
 in 1975

[Image source:]

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