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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Field

John Ashbery and the Poetics of Apophany

Giorgio de Chirico, "Piazza d'Italia con Arianna"

There is something counter-intuitively strange about writing about poetry in the context of mental illness - in this case, schizophrenia-spectrum illnesses - because at the heart of poetry is the art of metaphor, while schizophrenia-spectrum illnesses, at least when one is in the throes of psychosis, means the inability to recognize metaphor, the inability to say this is real, and this is not real, and therefore the inability to acknowledge the "as if" of art. I'm sorry to say this, but psychotic people - and I have been psychotic - are not good interpreters of reality. They interpret reality differently, idiosyncratically, bizarrely, and there is something very important about understanding these interpretations; but at the same time, it is okay to say that these interpretations can often be harmful, and are not in touch with reality.

I remember when I read Hannah Weiner for the first time, and I was fascinated by the fact that she seemed to be transcribing what she was hallucinating as she was hallucinating, and that these hallucinations were juxtaposed to her more mundane wonderings about her day-to-day life. It seemed obvious to me that this was what she was doing. But when I read articles about Weiner, different scholars were very careful about distinguishing Weiner's work aesthetically and formally from more literal interpretations of her work as a kind of naive transcription of her second-to-second experience with the hallucination of words. I remember, when I read these essays, that at first I felt angry. Why were these scholars denying what to me seemed quite obvious about what Weiner was doing? What was wrong with psycho-biography? What was wrong with saying that Wiener had schizophrenia? But when I thought more about it, I realized that these scholars wished to read Weiner not as a schizophrenic, but as an artist. And that seemed quite understandable and legitimate to me.

The most important book I have ever read about analogies between art and schizophrenia, that does not reduce one to the other, but rather robustly preserves their unique differences and similarities, is Louis Sass's Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature, and Thought. (Sass is also the author behind the best model of schizophrenia I have encountered, and more about that can be read here.) Sass's usage of modern and postmodern art to discuss schizophrenia-spectrum illnesses is important, especially now when, in works like On Madness: Understanding the Psychotic Mind by Richard G T Gipps, or Wouter Kusters A Philosophy of Madness: The Experience of Psychotic Thinking, we are often presented with the question about how much it is possible to empathize with a psychotic experience. Gipps comes from the tradition of Karl Jaspers, who argued that psychotic experiences are incomprehensible, although this was not meant as a deterrent to understanding but an attempt, it seems, to honor the integrity of the experience apophatically without projecting onto the experience aspects unrelated to it. (A recent article by Clara S. Humpston, "Isolated by Oneself: Ontologically Impossible Experiences in Schizophrenia" also seems to take a note from Jaspers.) Kusters, on the other hand, tries to show us examples of psychotic thinking, among other things, in the interest of empathy and shared understanding.

A third take on the incomprehensibility of psychotic experiences is, of course, Sass's, and his emphasis on art as a means of conveying various aspects of psychosis. I wonder how Sass would read Weiner, for I think he would also try and preserve the aesthetic status of Weiner's work, and yet at the same time not turn his face away from Weiner's diagnosis of schizophrenia. At any rate, Sass discusses many artists in Madness and Modernism, but one he does not discuss is John Ashbery, whose poetry to my mind can often serve as an interesting analogue to various experiential phenomena in psychosis and schizophrenia-spectrum illnesses, including apophany and thought broadcasting.

Here is Sass on apophany:

The other aspect of the schizophrenic Stimmung, the fourth vision or mode of experience that is common in early phases of a psychotic break (though it generally occurs slightly after the Trema), is a certain abnormal awareness of meaningfulness or of significance that has been termed the apophanous mood (from the Greek word apophany, meaning to become manifest)...

Once conventional meanings have faded away (Unreality) and new details or aspects of the world have been thrust into awareness (Fragmentation, Mere Being), there often emerges an inchoate sense of the as yet unarticulated significance of these newly emergent phenomena. In this "mood," so eerily captured in both the writings and the paintings of de Chirico, the world resonates with a fugitive significance. Every detail and event takes on an excruciating distinctness, specialness, and peculiarity - some definite meaning that always lies just out of reach, however, where it eludes all attempts to grasp or specify it. The reality of everything the patient sees can seem heightened, as if each object were, somehow, being hyperbolically itself; and this in turn can create an air of unavoidable specificity, or a feeling of inevitability that hovers about everything. (Sass, 52)

If we look as far as the first poem that opens Ashbery's first book, Some Trees, "Two Scenes," we find ourselves immediately in the presence of a felt aesthetic apophany. The poem reads,


We see us as we truly behave:

From every corner comes a distinctive offering.

The train comes bearing joy;

The parks it strikes illuminate the table.

Destiny guides the water-pilot, and it is destiny.

For long we hadn't heard so much news, such noise.

The day was warm and pleasant.

"We see you in your hair,

Air resting around the tips of mountains."


A fine rain anoints the canal machinery.

This is perhaps a day of general honesty

Without example in the world's history

Though the fumes are not of a singular authority

And Indeed are dry as poverty.

Terrific units are on an old man

In the blue shadow of some paint cans

As laughing cadets say, "In the evening

Everything has a schedule, if you can find out what it is."

We are immediately in the vicinity of newness, not just formally but thematically. "This is perhaps a day of general honesty / Without example in the world's history". There is the sense of something astonishing happening, and yet we cannot put our finger on what exactly is happening, on what exactly is astonishing. "Everything has a schedule, if you can find out what it is." The poem is invested with an enormous significance, but the source of the significance is elsewhere. Therefore the mystery of the poem is quite unique; it feels as if we are teetering on the edge of revelation, without being given that revelation. There is a distinctness to everything - "From every corner comes a distinctive offering" - and a sense of, in Sass's words, "newly emergent phenomena." There is even a play on words - "news" and "noise" - that approximate the schizophrenic lust for word play. It is a poem that conveys "distinctness, specialness, and peculiarity," and therefore a marvelous example of the apophanous mood.

Ashbery tends to sometimes play with the tropes of madness - one thinks of "Loving Mad Tom" from Houseboat Days - but other times his own style of poetry can seem less like an overt playing and more a drawing attention structurally to similarities between schizophrenia-spectrum illness and poetry. Take this prose poem from Your Name Here, "If You Said You Would Come With Me," a good example of aesthetic depersonalization, derealization, and thought broadcasting:

In town it was very urban but in the country cows were covering the hills. The clouds were near and very moist. I was walking along the pavement with Anna, enjoying the scattered scenery. Suddenly a sound like a deep bell came from behind us. We both turned to look. "It's the words you spoke in the past, coming back to haunt you," Anna explained. "They always do, you know."

Indeed I did. Many times this deep bell-like tone has intruded itself on my thoughts, scrambling them at first, then rearranging them in apple-pie order. "Two crows," the voice seemed to say, "were sitting on a sundial in the God-given sunlight. Then one flew away."

"Yes...and then?" I wanted to ask, but I kept silent. We turned into a courtyard and walked up several flights of stairs to the roof, where a party was in progress. "This is my friend Hans," Anna said by way of introduction. No one paid much attention and several guests moved away to the balustrade to admire the view of orchards and vineyards, approaching their autumn glory. One of the women however came to greet us in a friendly manner. I was wondering if this was a "harvest home," a phrase I had often heard but never understood.

"Welcome to my home...well, to our home," the woman said gaily. "As you can see, the grapes are being harvested." It seemed she could read my mind. "They said this year's vintage will be a mediocre one, but the sight is lovely, nonetheless. Don't you agree, Mr..."

"Hans," I replied curtly. The prospect was indeed a lovely one, but I wanted to leave. Making some excuse I guided Anna by the elbow toward the stairs and we left.

"That wasn't polite of you," she said dryly.

"Honey, I've had enough of people who can read your mind. When I want it done I"ll go to a mind reader."

"I happen to be one and I can tell you what you're thinking is false. Listen to what the big bell says: 'We are all strangers on our own turn, in our own time.' You should have paid attention. Now adjustments will have to be made."

It's worth noting, off the bat, that the prose poem begins midway with a metaphor - "It seemed she could read my mind" - and then ends with the erosion or dissolution of the "as if" (though in a poem that itself cannot really lose its own status as an "as if," it being a poem), where the speaker enters into a dialogue with Anna who is indeed a mind reader. This notion of mind reading is a common symptom in schizophrenia-spectrum illnesses and is typically termed "thought insertion" or "thought broadcasting." What I want to call attention to is that the prose poem captures how deeply strange and unnerving such experiences are, while also somehow being funny. There is a deep sense of unreality in the poem, of someone viewing their experiences from a remote and depersonalized distance. It feels more like a dream than a wakeful experience. Furthermore, it feels autotelic, like the world of delusion. There is something about the world that we step into when reading the prose poem, and step out of when done, that feels as if we have entered a completely bizarre and insular world. It is the strangeness this world, juxtaposed with familiar experiences - a party, a friend, dialogue - that makes the prose poem funny, arguably, because of this radical incongruity.

Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that there are such strong parallels between schizophrenia-spctrum symptoms and the poetry of Ashbery. There is something very similar, it seems to be, between the idea of defamiliarization in art, according to a theorist like Shlovsky, and the experience in schizophrenia-spectrum illnesses of derealization and depersonalization. Both are instances of the familiar made strange, and this is discussed in great and penetrating detail by Sass in Madness and Modernism. While there are many many poems. by Ashbery that make the strange familiar and the familiar strange - see Michael Clune's "Whatever Charms in Alien: John Ashbery's Everything" for a discussion of Ashbery and the strange made familiar - I want to end with a stanza from "As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat," as evidence of a kind of theorizing of apophany. The passage reads,

A look of glass stops you

And you walk on shaken: was I the perceived?

Did they notice me, this time, as I am,

Or is it postponed again? The children

Still at their games, clouds that arise with a swift

Impatience in the afternoon sky, then dissipate

As limpid, dense twilight comes.

Only in that tooting of a horn

Down there, for a moment, I thought

The great, formal affair was beginning, orchestrated,

Its colors concentrated in a glance, a ballade

That takes in the whole world, now, but lightly,

Still lightly, but with wide authority and tact.

This is one of the most beautiful passages I have ever read in Ashbery, (",now, but lightly, still lightly,") and yet to this day I have no idea what Ashbery is referring to when he speaks of the "great, formal affair," even as I am ravished by "orchestrated, / Its colors concentratd in a glance, a ballade / That takes in the whole world, now, but lightly, / Still lightly, but with wide authority and tact." This is a passage about apophany, about a sense of something enormously and exquisitely beautiful about to happen, yet we do not know whatsoever what this event is, or means, or will be, or can be. Perhaps he is describing the poem itself. But we encounter the same sentiment in "Grand Galop," when Ashbery writes,

What time of day is it?

Does anything matter?

Yes, for you must wait to see what it is really like,

This event rounding the corner

Which will be unlike anything else and really

Cause no surprise: it's too ample.

If there is something expected to happen in "If You Said You Would Come With Me," it is tinged with fear and bizarre unreality. But what is expected to happen in "As One Put Drunk into a Packet-Boat" and "Grand Galop" is more Whitmanesque, more celebratory and exciting. Both are poems about apophany, but in different moods.

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