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Why Might a Singular Voice Suggest More Objectivity Than Subjectivity?


John Ashbery



I was thinking today, as I biked around the metropolitan Detroit area, that reading, thinking, and looking, as well as hearing, are things we hear about - things we might think about indirectly, perhaps opaquely, as loose signifiers for activities we don't often look more closely at - but that they are actually quite complicated and interesting and weirder than we imagine, and that they therefore deserve a second look.


What is thinking? What does it mean to think? What does it mean to see? What does it mean to look? And what do these things have to do with consciousness, or awareness, and therefore art and life?


I think we could safely say that when we read a sentence in a book - language, essentially, meaning words - we are hearing thinking, or we are hearing thought. If we are imaginative, or sensitive, and we are reading a good author, we might even hear the voice we are reading - the thought of the author - in a particular way. When I read Samuel Johnson, for example, I hear a kind of authoritative voice that is not my own. In a sense I am imagining Johnson's voice, since we don't have recordings of his voice. But I think that act - the imagination of a voice, how it sounds spoken by a human being - we could use the word "inflection" here, from Wallace Stevens - is not something we talk about enough.


To recognize a singular voice is to hear the thoughts of an individual, who is himself or herself a person who has formed a strong enough character to stand out, and to therefore be different, and therefore singular. A voice in poetry - like John Ashbery's, or Wallace Stevens' - (and sometimes I think voice is most intimate, historically, in the verbal arts with poetry, since there is a freedom in poetry that I find less in prose - I could be wrong about this - but that seems to me a few inches further away in terms of singularity, although perhaps this is only my bias) is an example of someone who learned how to think for themselves, and whose very thought, the sound of it, the particular timbers and melodies and inflections and innuendos, how it turns and when it turns, the customary slopes it bikes up and the accustomed hills it speeds down, and every loop and curve and fidget - these kinds of moves, in thought, are what makes a poet different from another, and therefore a voice different from another voice, and therefore I guess we could say a style of thinking different or distinct from another style of thinking.


Stevens was famously known for enormously insightful comments about the relationship between thinking and seeing. And I think he would have liked a phrase like "how you think is how you see," although he was also wonderfully difficult to pin down, and because his mind was always in motion, he was always beginning again, setting something down only to turn it over in his mind, or in his hands, and see it in a new angle, in a different light, from various vantage points and even across - as the object grew with him - different moments in time. And I think there is something true about this phrase, since style in an artist is not something only found in their books, but something hard-to-describe that is formed over time in the inner world - a mind, I guess, or a character, a slant of being, a slant of seeing - and that shines down or across the page of the actual world, and because it does it appears in the books. I don't think we will ever know exactly how John Ashbery saw the world, how he experienced it, but I don't think it was with blinders on, and I do think how he saw the world, the actual fabric and texture of the meaningfulness and probably sometimes felt-meaninglessness of the world, was probably very tied to what he wrote in his poems and how he wrote them. This is an assumption, but I think it's a fair one, because we can't cordon off the inner world from the outer in some humongous Descartian folly and then simply point to one and then another like some anatomical drawing - at least in terms of poets as good as Ashbery.


If we can say that Ashbery, or Stevens, or Jay Wright, or Emily Dickinson, or Walt Whitman, saw the world in a different way, what does that mean? For example, sometimes I will look at people, and I will see something about them that seems enormously revealing, although I might not know them at all. A woman will drive by in an SUV with sunglasses, and I will sense her sensing me looking at her, and a kind of inner flush will color something behind her public face. In can be self-consciousness about being seen or witnessed, or worry or discomfort. Sometimes it's as if one is seeing a childhood aspect of a person, or perhaps feeling it. As a man, I sometimes sense this with other men. I will look at a man, and feel an energy that feels homosexual to me, and it is as though there is something in them from their childhood that was never worked out, and that still has homoerotic feelings for men out of the need for a father figure. Other men and women I will look at, and will get totally different readings. Some people who have worked hard enough do not seem to get the blush of self-consciousness. Today, for example, I noticed a Black woman with her children, and she was tough. When we grow up, I guess, we kind of lose an aspect of childishness, and this lady seemed to be able to not be self-conscious all the time, which I think is a great thing, if I was reading the situation correctly.


I suppose what we are really talking about, in the context of looking, as well as maturity in how we look and see and think, is discernment. I tend to value discernment, especially because I do not think enough people cultivate it. What is discernment?


Discernment is healthy judging. It means seeing, or reading a situation, and having as objective a lens on it as possible. Harold Bloom would have hated this definition, perhaps, because objectivity was anathema to him, since he felt - and I agree somewhat - that, like Nietzsche, we were all singular readers of the world, and therefore were misreaders, since there was no correct reading necessarily, though some readings were better than other readings. But the truth is that we should not characterize misreading as style without objectivity. Or, put another way, misreading does not necessarily mean only the singularity of one's subjectivity but, if one's voice is actually singular, it actually suggests something quasi-correct, something like the authority of a Whitman poem or a Johnson essay.

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