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"The lake a lilac cube": John Ashbery's Cubist Poetics

posted on 05.12.2016, 05:42 by David Alexander Andrus Dick
John Ashbery’s writing revolves around a persistent misdirection: an open-ended ambiguity where the ostensible subjects or objects of his speaker’s focus are subsumed within the seemingly self-generative nature of his poetry. Fragmented imagery gives way to philosophical musing, moments of discursive clarity are undercut by apparent clichés, and any sense of a stable lyric ‘I’ is challenged by the instability of the pronominal, secondperson ‘you.’ However, this elusiveness is pivotal to the invitational aspect of his poetry. It is an invitation to the reader's active recognition that the poem's volatility is a reflection—even, presentation—of a mind in the process of writing: the primary subject of Ashbery’s poetry. The unreliable speaker addresses the detritus of a reality which cannot avoid being incorporated, contained and changed by the work itself, assuming an altered, unfamiliar aspect. It is an autonomous textual reality in need of the reader for realization.
   This thesis explores how this aspect of Ashbery’s poetry was honed in the experimental books of his earlier years, prior to the Pulitzer Prize winning Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975). Importantly, these books—The Tennis Court Oath (1962), Rivers and Mountains (1966) and Three Poems (1972)—alongside Ashbery’s critical writing and translations, illustrate a debt to avant-garde Modernism, and quite specifically, the so-called Cubist poets, Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy and Gertrude Stein. During the period 1908-1914 Cubism evolved from an analytic reconsideration of art’s representational possibilities, to an art consumed by the imagination in its act of synthesising a reality displaced into the work of art itself. Similarly, Ashbery’s poetry undertook its own parallel evolution: it grew from the purposeful analytic destruction of poetic mimesis in The Tennis Court Oath; to the bridging synthetic and Surrealist writing of Rivers and Mountains; and, finally, to the hugely influential postmodern prose-poetry of Three Poems, which takes the self-reflexive and autonomous nature of Cubist poetry to its self-absorbed and spectacular limit. These books explore Ashbery’s relation to poetry, reality and consciousness in a manner reflective of their own inherent complexities. As such, this thesis argues that Ashbery’s development can be traced through these texts, which are then opened up by an understanding of Cubism, Cubist poetics and, broadly, avant-garde Modernism. This enabled Ashbery to uncover the thoughtful voice of his later period: one no longer reacting solely against the vagaries of its production, but adopting this process within the flow of the poem itself.


Principal supervisor

John Hawke

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics

Campus location



Faculty of Arts