The Memory of Dionysus: John Ashbery’s Poetry of Sparagmos

Originally for my final project I wanted to take a look at The Tennis Court Oath from Ashbery and how it related to themes of exile and the other, but then I dived into his other collections and the criticism done on his poetics and decided against this. It would have been difficult to talk about as a class due to the nature of the poems, and honestly I find myself agreeing with Harold Bloom regarding the collection, but still it is an important moment in Ashbery’s career that I will still speak of in my new idea for the final project. Now in reading Ashbery one thing has become very clear to me. The poet refuses to deal with any set meaning in his poetry. He stresses in interviews the living phenomena of his work, he is trying to always deal with the now-ness of it all; the poems are “hymns to possibility.” I think all works of greatness or genius provide us with constant interpretation, take Ulysses for example; they capture not a perspective on life, but life itself in its flux.

In reading the later poems after The Tennis Court Oath, I really started to appreciate the fluidity of Ashbery’s language and how time is experienced or manipulated by the subject of his poems. Much of the critical work on Ashbery relates a lot of his poetry to philosophy, and specifically with thoughts on subjectivity relating to Descartes and Hume ( check out The Metaphysical Subject of John Ashbery’s Poetry). With philosophy I’ve always been interested in the concept of the Dionysian, especially in the works of Nietzsche and Gilles Deleuze because I believe it relates to poetry in what I deem one of its highest powers, the capability of creating a process of Deindividuation. The Dionysian to explain it briefly is the belief in the innocence of mankind pitted against the tragedies of man and being born, that through the chaos of the universe, ecstasy, dreams, music, we achieve a unity with nature.  The god Dionysus like Ashbery does not care for meaning so much, or solving the world; rather, they wish to reveal the constant metamorphosis of subjectivity, which points to something deeper within the subject beyond individuation.

I find that Ashbery’s poetry relates to many aspects of the Dionysian myths and rituals. There is a confusion in the subject of his poems between the conscious and the unconscious. There is a fluidity in identity seen with the use of pronouns and voice throughout some of the poems. In a book I will be using for my paper, The Time of Memory, the author often goes back and forth between he and she and it when referring to Dionysus. But I am going to be using this book mainly in focusing on the concept of Dionysian Memory and the process of forgetting. In some of the poems Ashbery uses this idea of forgetting both individually and collectively in interesting ways, like in “Clouds,” which ends with the mother of Dionysus, Semele. We saw this sort of forgetting in “These Lacustrine Cities” too. I have often seen Ashbery talk about his language in a Dionysian way too that relates to the rituals of the God: Sparagmos. 

Overall though I find this idea of great intellectual interest to me. I believe poets like Rimbaud ( an important influence on Ashbery) embodied that Dionysian energy as well in his collection Illuminations, but that Ashbery perhaps takes it a step further. He refuses this idea of making a monument of his emotions, of his observations, his wisdom. He would not have collection entitled Illuminations. Yet he seems to still acknowledge this sort of seriousness of the poet as something to go through. It feels more Dionysian in the sense that if there are monuments within the poems, they are merely accidents.


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