Conjunctions:49 A Writers’ Aviary

What We Know as We Know It: Reading “Litany” With JA (As We Know, 1979)
“The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. 

To copy a reality is, indeed, one very important way of agreeing with it, but it is far from being essential. The essential thing is the process of being guided.”
 
—William James 
“Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth”

1.

It has long been my contention, or suspicion, or just unverified hunch, that John Ashbery (like Gertrude Stein) has had some relation to William James and American pragmatism. Ashbery’s reluctance to make any statement or declaration that does not appear to arrive and disappear on the heels of his miraculous syntax seems to me evidence of the kind of conceptual relativity that James first enunciated in the early years of the twentieth century. Ashbery’s joyous investment in a present reality as being inimical to what James called “copying” is further evidence: Ashberian poetics insists on the multidimensionality of time-space duration, as opposed to either pictorial mimesis or the cause-and-effect order of conventional, developmental narration: reality, for Ashbery, has neither linearity nor replica. Connections among thinking and feeling, knowing and doing are always in flux.
The light that was shadowed then 
Was seen to be our lives, 
Everything about us that love might wish to examine, 
Then put away for a certain length of time, until 
The whole is to be reviewed, and we turned toward each other. 
The way we had come was all we could see 
And it crept up on us, embarrassed 
That there is so much to tell now, really now. 
—“As We Know” 
An idea I had talked about 
Became the things I do. 
—“Five Pedantic Pieces” 
We must first trick the idea 
Into being, then dismantle it, 
Scattering the pieces on the wind, 
So that the old joy, modest as cake, as wine and friendship 
Will stay with us at the last, backed by the night 
Whose ruse gave it our final meaning. 
—“Flowering Death” 
The difficulty with that is 
I no longer have any metaphysical reasons 
For doing the things I do. 
Night formulates, the rest is up to the scribes and the eunuchs. 
—“The Preludes” 


 



2.

As We Know, John Ashbery’s eighth book, was published in 1979. It has a unique, horizontal shape, associated in the visual arts with landscape (as the vertical is with portraiture). Indeed, the book’s jacket art, by the Renaissance Dutch painter Pietre Jansz Saenredam (1597–1665), features a scene, “St. Mary’s Square and St. Mary’s Church, Utrecht.” In muted, evening tones of ochre and pale blue, a few persons gathered here and there, the painting depicts the large stone church at the right, a clocktower, and a second church spire rising behind it into the veiled, cloud-studded sky.

     This ecclesiastical subject matter might have given prospective readers a clue to the book’s contents. Indeed, as we now know, the reason for the eccentric landscape format was to accommodate “Litany,” a long poem in three parts for two voices, meant, as the Author’s Note tells us, “to be read as simultaneous but independent monologues.” Of the book’s 118 pages, sixty-eight belong to “Litany.”

     A litany, in liturgical ceremonies, is a form of prayer that usually involves invocations or supplications by the preacher, followed by fixed responses from the congregation. In common usage, the word has come to mean any list, enumeration, or prolonged account—“the whole litany of complaint.” 

     The Greek root of the word is litaneia, an entreaty.


 



3.

The little black cassette is lost; I have looked for it everywhere. The sound was beginning to deteriorate, the voices stretched into slow motion. I played it often at the end of a term for my students as a kind of gift, since unless you hear “Litany” you cannot really know, or have, it. After it was first recorded, I would play it at night, with the lights out, as a fantastic lullaby: my own voice merging and diverging from his, his from mine, two uttering instruments playing in tandem. The musical analogy is obvious. Indeed, in a recent e-mail to me Ashbery wrote, “Elliott Carter’s Duo for Violin and Piano was an influence on ‘Litany.’ I heard it performed at Cooper Union (the premiere, I think). For that performance the violinist was at one end of the stage and the piano at the other, emphasizing the separateness of the two parts. I don’t believe I was conscious of this as an influence at the time I wrote ‘Litany.’ Only afterwards did it dawn on me that the music doubtless affected the poem.” 

     We went north one day on Amtrak to Saratoga Springs, New York. I was extremely tired, I remember, having had too much wine the night before and not enough sleep. Although John and I had already performed part of “Litany” at a bar on lower University Place in Manhattan, I had never read the whole poem: he gave me a copy of it to read on the train. I seem to recall it was in manuscript form, or perhaps galleys, so maybe the book had not yet been published. We were headed up to ZBS recording studios. ZBS stands for “Zero Bull Shit.” Sited on a forty-five-acre farm in Fort Edward, New York, it was founded in 1970 in the midst of the counterculture, “to support alternative radio and audio production, creation, inspiration, good vibes, and self-development.” Artists were to be invited for residences. If you Google it, you will find a lot of interesting information, but nowhere will you find reference to John Ashbery and Ann Lauterbach recording “Litany.” Perhaps I dreamed it up.


 



4.

We were situated across from each other at a small high table, with two microphones. It was later that same day, after some tea and a chat with the recording engineer. Ready, set, go. 

     He read:
For someone like me
The simplest things 
Like having toast or 
Going to church are 
Kept in one place. 
     I read: 
So this must be a hole 
Of cloud 
Mandate or trap 
But haze that casts 
The milk of enchantment 
     The first stanza, five lines each. Voice One, “someone like me,” is in a direct, “simple” relation to things as they are; his world is “kept in one place.” Voice Two is in a more ambiguous setting; she is in a “milk of enchantment” that involves holes, hazes, traps, mandates, clouds, which is cast, in the following stanza “over the whole town.”

     In the second stanza, the tonal clarity of the first voice proceeds, as does the miasma of the second. But two new formal elements appear. Two words, town and knowledge, migrate across the two voices; also, the first of a number of isolations or singularities occurs. 

     Voice One: 
Like having wine and cheese. 
The parents of the town
Pissing elegantly escape knowledge
Once and for all. The 
Snapdragons consumed in a wind 
Of fire and rage far over
The streets as they end. 
     Voice Two: 
Over the whole town,
Its scenery, whatever 
Could be happening 
Behind tall hedges 
Of dark, lissome knowledge
[italics mine] 
     Voice One has seven lines; Voice Two has only five. Voice One has “town” at the end of his second line; Voice Two has “town” at the end of her first. It’s a kind of syncopated sound enjambment, in which the perfect rhyme slides, causing what might feel like an echo effect, so that, for example, the parents of the town might be heard to be over the whole town. The other repeated word, also an end word for both voices, is “knowledge.” A listener might also hear this chime, as if two instruments were playing the same note. For Voice One, the parents in the town “escape knowledge” just as it shifts over to Voice Two, “behind tall hedges / Of dark, lissome knowledge.” 

     The syntactical interplay is so subtle and indeterminate that any number of possible sentences might emerge. For example, one might hear “The milk of enchantment like having wine and cheese,” or “Could be happening / Once and for all” or “Snapdragons consumed in a wind / Of dark lissome knowledge.” The strange phrase “pissing elegantly” is likely to come unmoored from its subject, “the parents,” to idle until, perhaps, finding its way “behind tall hedges.” 

     Meanwhile, a single line springs loose from the duet. Just as Voice Two ends her stanza with “of dark, lissome knowledge,” Voice One says, “Of fire and rage far over.” This is the poem’s first unaccompanied line; it falls into a tiny pause before Voice Two takes up her third stanza. A listener will hear its grim, stark description: of fire and rage far over. Suddenly a new content arises: “of dark, lissome knowledge / of fire and rage far over / the streets as they end.”


 



5.

I made a terrible botch of it. I stumbled over the syntax and mispronounced words; most egregious, I found myself out of sync, in totally wrong places—way ahead or way behind, so the poem was undergoing radical distortions. I couldn’t read my part and his—to the left across the page—simultaneously, and so I went merrily, well, unmerrily, along until suddenly I was nowhere near where I was supposed to be according to the poem’s lineation. 

     Meanwhile, Ashbery’s implacable mild tonalities went on at their steady, stately rate, gliding over the poem’s surface with unruffled ease, as I slipped and fell, and began again, each time having to stop the proceedings, each time feeling increasingly humiliated and anxious; breathless, one might say: inundated. 

     Finally, we decided to quit. I think I said something to the effect that it was too difficult to read my part with the author sitting not two feet away, which was true. But I feared that, even with sleep, I would not be able to keep in step. A compromise was found: John should continue to read and record “his” part of the poem, and I, on the following morning, would read mine, while listening through earphones to the recording of his reading. This change proved to be astonishingly successful; somehow, hearing the First Voice made it possible for me to play, or be, the Second.


 



6.

In Part 1 of “Litany,” each voice has almost the same number of isolated, solo lines; the First Voice has one more than the Second, but the Second has two together, a couplet (discontinuous—maybe—in terms of sense) at the end of the section. Otherwise, each has only single lines that break out from the ongoing duet. Of course, it is almost impossible to imagine that any two persons could read the poem with such exactitude that each of these lines would be “revealed,” since the line lengths, and thus the pacing, throughout are extremely varied. Still, it might be interesting to have a look at these isolated lines as they appear on the printed page. 

     First Voice: 

1. Of fire and rage far over 
2. He spat on the flowers. 
3. To the rest. That is why 
4. The last rains fed 
5. Have a music of their own, 
6. The shirt. 
7. To serenade it 
8. To remember what had indeed once 
9. The dark shirt dragged frequently 
10. Etc., 
11. You and Sven-Bertil must 
12. At some earlier time 
13. At the top 
14. In darkness, and each 
15. Still, somewhere wings are 
16. Is still room for certain boys to stand, 
17. In the here and now. You were saying 
18. Mother and the kids standing around 
19. Are outnumbered by plain queries 
20. Storehouse of agendas, bales 
21. Is forgotten like thorns in the memory 
22. Extinct, ultimate slopes, 
23. That brought us to this unearthly spot. 
24. That reads as life to the toilers 
25. Because it is the way of the personality of each 
26. Gun-metal laurels, the eye 
27. Capital at the beginning, and its polished 
28. Came to its dramatic conclusion, but 

     Second Voice: 

1. In explicit sex 
2. Remembers except that elf. 
3. Around us are signposts 
4. Surrounding, encroaching on 
5. The warp of knowledge 
6. Of nerves, articulate 
7. Pass by like a caravan 
8. Through the cistern of shade 
9. To be dreamed of 
10. Moving over the nebulous
11. Intruding into the color, 
12. Of ice cream and sting 
13. Nor on a journey, appearing 
14. There is no more history you 
15. Now the dry, half-seen pods 
16. Behemoths of sense shredding 
17. With rheumy specs, dung beetle bringing up the rear: 
18. They are anxious to be done with us, 
19. Stood; nothing’s there 
20. To reveal, being forward like this, but we can say 
21. Shove us away, but rather 
22. Only an aftertaste of medicine 
23. Begin it; duration 
24. The speeding hollow bullet of these times 
25. These relatives like scarlet trees who infested 
26. Of reading and listening to the wireless. 
27. We never should have parted, you and me. 

     I want to say that the two voices, although extremely close in tonal mood and content, in fact vary slightly in register, like the difference between two instruments, an oboe and a flute, or a piano and a violin. The Second Voice seems slightly more recessed, more introverted, and the first more overt and declarative. I even want to suggest that the First Voice is more “interested” in the visual, the concrete, the spatial, and the Second more attentive to the immaterial, the abstract, the temporal, but these dualities are undoubtedly spurious. Perhaps it is only a simple matter of major and minor, of a slight increase in certitude on the part of Voice One, and a slight increase in doubt on the part of Voice Two. 

     Do such distinctions, even if they were true, matter? Probably not. They are the curse of a desire to make meaning align with sense through operations of the analytic, what William James called the “rational,” whereas the poem, like so much of Ashbery’s work, insists that meaning and sense making, how we come to know what we know, are more complicated, intractable, and irretrievable, than we care to admit. James says, “Pragmatism gets her general notion of truth as something bound up with the way in which one moment in our experience may lead us towards other moments which it will be worthwhile to have been led to.” “Litany”’s solo lines are exposed leads, where the audience “glimpses” some passing event or object, which may or may not connect to another event, another object. 

     And so to the Second Voice’s last two lines of the poem’s first section: “of reading and listening to the wireless. We never should have parted, you and me.” One might consider that the “you and me” refers not only to two persons, but also to two activities: reading and listening. As usual with Ashbery, the poem speaks to, and for, itself.


 



7.

I have come to believe, or think, or understand, that when someone dies, the most acute sense of loss is that of his or her voice. (For a while, one can “hear” a person’s voice in one’s inner ear, but slowly that fades.) This is odd, since sound is of course immaterial; one would think that the body would be the most felt absence. But sound is a distinctive marker of living presence more than any material object can possibly be; sound and lived time are indissoluble: they are, so to speak, part of the continuity of a landscape rather than the singularity of a portrait. Sound is embedded in spatial context. 

     The two Voices of “Litany” enact an interactive arc of proximity and solitude: near and far shuttle across the articulations of the middle distance. The poem evokes the intimacy of erotic connection; it hovers on the miraculous, as if at any moment a revelation might be, at last, at hand. But as with almost all experiences, these revelatory moments might or might not be shared among the assembled, as we (come to) know—feel, believe—what we know. One person will perceive an illuminating moment, another will discern a different one: the subjectivity of the listening self is allowed to move, and choose, among the great mass and flow of particulars. “Litany” asks of its performers, as of its audience, an acceptance of difference as a necessity of contiguity. The poem flares and contracts from personal intimacy to demotic community, and, as always in Ashbery, it swerves happily around the plainness and comedy of the mundane, “day by day.” “Litany” offers a dissonant harmonic in which two voices must simultaneously speak and listen, to themselves and to each other. Both call, both respond.


 



8.

There have been now several occasions in which I have performed the Second Voice. Around the time of the session at ZBS, there was a reading at a bar—now gone—on University Place, just across from Washington Square. Then Michael Lally and I performed the poem together for Ada Katz’s Poet’s Theatre, standing opposite each other on a stage. Then there was a long lapse, twenty years or more. When Ashbery’s eightieth birthday celebration began to gain momentum, I suggested to John and David (Kermani) that perhaps this might be a good time for a new recital of “Litany,” since so many among younger poets are interested in sound/performance, intertextuality, glossolalia. For the New School’s Ashbery celebration, John and I read Part 1, and James Tate and Dara Wier read Part 3 at the Bowery Poetry Club; John and I read Part 3 for the New Yorker festival in Fall 2006. 

     “Litany” ends with Voice One having an extended solo aria of fifteen lines. 

Why keep on seeding the chairs 
When the future is night and no one knows what 
He wants? It would probably be best though 
To hang on to these words if only 
For the rhyme. Little enough, 
But later on, at the summit, it won’t 
Matter so much that they fled like arrows 
From the taut string of a restrained 
Consciousness, only that they mattered. 
For the present, our not-knowing 
Delights them. Probably they won’t be devoured 
By the lions, like the others, but be released 
After a certain time. Meanwhile, keep 
Careful count of the rows of windows overlooking 
The deep blue sky behind the factory: we’ll need them. 

     In these final fifteen lines, there are five temporal signs: the future is night, but later on, for the present, after a certain time, meanwhile. These unsteady, disorienting pointers or skips, so typical of Ashbery, rupture narrative as a condition of chronological cause and effect, as we learn to listen to a vibratory consciousness that forfeits one form of knowing for another. It is, I think, Ashbery’s great gift, to have taught us to listen for the multiplicity, the plurality, of experience: as we know. As William James put it, “for every part, tho it may not be in actual or immediate connexion, is nevertheless in some possible or mediated connexion, with every other part, however remote, through the fact that each part hangs together with its very next neighbors in inextricable interfusion.” Reading “Litany” with John Ashbery is just that: an inextricable interfusion. Like singing along with life. 

Ann Lauterbach teaches at Bard College. Her books of poetry include Under the SignOr to Begin Again, and Hum.