Poetry News

At Jacket2: Sandra Simonds on Ashbery's Girls on the Run

By Harriet Staff
John Ashbery

For her first entry as a Jacket2 guest commentator, poet Sandra Simonds looks again at John Ashbery's undersung, book-length poem, Girls on the Run (1999): "What I would like to argue in this talk is that Ashbery’s book is about the affective, textual, emotional, and psychological frames of childhood. Feelings of instability, indeterminacy, and flux, which are often linked to John Ashbery’s poetic oeuvre, are heightened within this framework because childhood is a time of growth and development, where the mind itself is neither fixed nor certain." More from Simonds:

Normative emotional codes, the etymology of feeling, are constructed in the child’s early encounters with not only family (and other more obvious forms of the social) but also in texts. For Ashbery, the importance of comic strips, cartoons, and children’s books is well-documented. In a 1980 interview, reprinted recently in the Bennington Review, Ashbery comments, “cartoon characters appear in quite a lot of my poems and, of course, my first literary experience was comic strips. In a way, it may have been my strongest one.” What’s surprising about Girls on the Run is that emotional states are elicited through what we would normally think of as the constraining structures of mass culture, the clichéd language of feeling lifted straight from comic books. However, in Ashbery this language to some degree liberates the characters to explore, freely associate, and develop in their world.

The children in Girls on the Run are often fleeing from an amorphous threat, one that parallels the ominous feeling of danger in [Henry] Darger’s text; yet in Ashbery, instead of one-dimensional explicit violence, we are trapped in diffuse structural violence, entangled in the ghostly echoes of what we have all, as a collective, heard before, for this language has been imprinted deep in the past, buried in the texts of the unconscious: “What if someone called back to you / from a distance? What would you sound like? What would you think? Does anyone care any more about it’s being night?” Lauren Berlant reads Ashbery’s work as “haunted that its knowledge is a repetition of something it can’t quite remember.”

Read the full essay at Jacket2.

Originally Published: February 13th, 2018