Audio

The Beginnings Concept: A Discussion of John Ashbery's "Crossroads in the Past"

August 13, 2008

Al Filreis: I’m Al Filreis and this is Poem Talk at The Writers House where I have the pleasure of convening three friends in the world of contemporary poetry and poetics to collaborate on a close but not too close reading of a poem. We’ll talk, maybe even disagree a bit, and perhaps open up the verse to a few new possibilities and we hope gain for a poem that interests us some new readers and listeners. I say listeners because Poem Talk poems are available in recordings made by the poets themselves as part of our pennsoundarchivewriting.upenn.edu/pennsound.

Today I’m joined here in Philadelphia in studio 111 in the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing by Jessica Lowenthal, a teacher and poet, author of As If In Turning and director of the Kelly Writer’s House. And by Tom Devaney, poet, essayist, and one of my favourite reviewers of poetry books who’s own most recent book of verse is A Series of Small Boxes published by Fish Drum. And by Gregory Djanikian, among who’s many books of poems are Falling Deeply Into America, Years Later, and his new volume of verse responding to the Armenian genocide and it’s effects on his family, So I Will Till The Ground, Carnegie Mellon. Greg is also the director here of Creative Writing here at CPCW. Welcome back to a Poem Talk semi-regular Jessica, and hello Greg and Tom and welcome to Poem Talk.

 

Jessica Lowenthal: Thank you Al, it’s good to be back.

 

Gregory Djanikian: Thank you, Al.


Thomas Devaney: Hello Al.

 

Al Filreis: Hello Tom. Our poem today is some verse by John Ashbery and what might be called Ashbery’s late style. It’s “Crossroads in the Past” published in a beautiful book called Your Name Here, in 2000, the volume Ashbery dedicated to the memory of Pierre Montory who had died in 1998. Before we talk, let’s have a listen to them poem. Here now is John Ashbery reading “Crossroads in the Past”.

 

John Ashbery:

That night the wind stirred in the forsythia bushes,

but it was a wrong one, blowing in the wrong direction.

“That’s silly. How can there be a wrong direction?

‘It bloweth where it listeth,’ as you know, just as we do

when we make love or do something else there are no rules for.”

 

I tell you, something went wrong there a while back.

Just don’t ask me what it was. Pretend I’ve dropped the subject.

No, now you’ve got me interested, I want to know

exactly what seems wrong to you, how something could

 

seem wrong to you. In what way do things get to be wrong?

I’m sitting here dialing my cellphone

with one hand, digging at some obscure pebbles with my shovel

with the other. And then something like braids will stand out,

 

on horsehair cushions. That armchair is really too lugubrious.

We’ve got to change all the furniture, fumigate the house,

talk our relationship back to its beginnings. Say, you know

that’s probably what’s wrong—the beginnings concept, I mean.

I aver there are no beginnings, though there were perhaps some

sometime. We’d stopped, to look at the poster the movie theater

 

had placed freestanding on the sidewalk. The lobby cards

drew us in. It was afternoon, we found ourselves

sitting at the end of a row in the balcony; the theater was unexpectedly

crowded. That was the day we first realized we didn’t fully

know our names, yours or mine, and we left quietly

amid the gray snow falling. Twilight had already set in.

 

Al Filreis: Okay, so there seems to be a conversation going on between at least two people, presumably two, and one of the conversant wonders how it’s possible for their to be a wrong direction. What do you think that means? What’s the answer to that question? Why does the question get asked?

 

Jessica Lowenthal: Ashbery for me as a poet who seems very interested in questions of direction in relation to narrative. Is there a story here? Is there a beginning middle and end? Which is brought up also in this poem…
 

Al Filreis: And is there a cause and effect.

 

Jessica Lowenthal: Is there a cause and effect. So his question is how do we make sense of the details of our lives and of our stories. Is there a story? Can there even be a sense of direction? He’d say no usually, but he’s staging that as an argument I think.

 

Al Filreis: Tom?

Thomas Devaney: Well, the poem starts out with a very narrative line, “That night the wind stirred in the forsythia bushes, / but it was a wrong one,” So that night, it’s like here’s a story, something happened.


Al Filreis: A once upon a time sort of thing.

 

Thomas Devaney: So it’s very narrative in it’s beginnings. And then “It’s a wrong one”. It’s almost like you’re speaking to someone and you say something and you don’t think about what you said. Then someone says, did you mean to say that? What did you mean by the wrong one? So he starts this conversation either with himself or with somebody else.

 

Al Filreis: Is there something literally going on there? When the wind blows, is it possible for the wind to be blowing in the wrong direction, Greg?

Gregory Djanikian: Of course it can be. If you’re expecting a wind to blow in a particular direction and if it blows incorrectly, indeed you can say it’s blowing in the wrong direction. I think this poem really talks about direction and location and evaluates direction and location in ways which are very very interesting. If someone says it’s the wrong direction, not only is that speaker talking about a relationship going in the wrong direction, a poem going in the wrong direction —

 

Al Filreis: And this is an Ashbery poem where famously and marvellously in my opinion, many of the poems don’t have a right or wrong direction, and indeed they don’t have a direction. So it keeps reminding you of the fact that an Ashbery poem doesn’t have to have a right or wrong direction. Greg, you were going to say something.

 

Gregory Djanikian: I think the question is asked, how can there be a wrong direction, because a declaration is made by another speaker, blowing in the wrong direction. The poem really is structured as a series of authoritative declarations and an undermining of those declarations.

 

John Ashbery:

That night the wind stirred in the forsythia bushes,

but it was a wrong one, blowing in the wrong direction.

“That’s silly. How can there be a wrong direction?

‘It bloweth where it listeth,’ as you know, just as we do

when we make love or do something else there are no rules for.”

 

Al Filreis: Tom, let me ask you about tone here. “In what way do things get to be wrong?” moves from a classic Ashberian comic antic mode, but that strikes me as a fairly serious, somber question. Do you agree with me about that?

Thomas Devaney: That is a serious question, and then he cuts himself off quickly. “That’s silly. How can there be a wrong direction?”

 

Al Filreis: And then after the asks that question he goes into the bric-a-brac Ashbery mode. I had a cellphone in one hand and I was digging at pebbles with the other. It becomes a little more typical. It’s possible even that he struck a raw nerve a bit?

Thomas Devaney: But he also distances himself from that as well. The three phrases, “I want to know exactly what seems wrong to you, how something could / seem wrong to you. In what way do things get to be wrong?”
 

Al Filreis: Jessica?

Jessica Lowenthal: I think that question of wrong and whether or not it’s somber gets the heart of this poem. Is it about the relationship or is it about poetry? Is it about the directionlessness, the possibility that this poem is just wandering along or that a relationship is just wandering along.

 

Thomas Devaney: Part of what Ashbery doesn’t accept about the idea of wrong is connected to this moment, connected to the wind. He says, “It bloweth where it listeth,” —

 

Al Filreis: A poetic phrase.

 

Jessica Lowenthal: Biblical I think.

 

Thomas Devaney: “Just as we do / when we make love or do something else there are no rules for.” He’s really attracted to those places like looking at waves and the wind and love when talking about such things, trying to know those arbitrary things exactly. He’s trying to deeply take in to himself that he loves those things that can’t be categorized.

 

Al Filreis: As usual, he dips into everyday idiom. The relationship talk in this poem is remarkably social. When he says, lets “talk our relationship back to its beginnings”, let me ask just aside from the Ashbery poem, if we were just four of us sitting on the bus and talking not about a poem but about relationship talk, what would it say for a couple to want to talk it’s relationship back to it’s beginnings? What does that mean?

Gregory Djanikian: Well it means to go backwards into the past. I think the title is instructive in this sense, because it’s “Crossroads in the Past” where these two lines intersect. To get back to that singularity, to that dot, to that place where a meeting has occurred.

 

Al Filreis: I’m sorry to interrupt you, but Ashbery is so not a road not taken kind of poet. It’s almost possible, I know maybe Tom could be lured into this reading, it’s almost possible to read this as a late Ashbery poem considering the whole problem of his directionlessness. When you’re talking about a relationship and a relationship is at an end, you begin to be compelled in traditional conventional ways about endings. “Crossroads in the Past” is almost an unironic title from Ashbery. Possible? Jessica, you’re not so sure about this.

 

Jessica Lowenthal: I was thinking he was starting off with some kind of poetic cliche, intentionally. Not to say that Frost is a cliche in Frost, but to think of a crossroad in the past as a beginning of a relationship doesn’t seem to be Ashberian to me. It must be ironic.


Al Filreis: Tom?

Thomas Devaney: I read it pretty straight forwardly myself. Ashbery seems to me does use the resources of his past in his poems all the time. Whether we have full access to the resources, we don’t. But we’re convinced by the fact that he’s convinced by his own sense of logic. Reading the poems, okay, I know he knows what he’s talking about, and I’m going along with the beauties of his language.


Al Filreis: That’s so well said, but the Ashbery that I know and love, the Ashbery poems are the poems of the poet who would never be caught dead going back to a crossroads, a moment where things might have gone wrong as if one would correct that. He’s not a therapeutic poet in that sense. He’s not going back and saying if we could imagine the present this way, we would be able to go back to a certain point, because he doesn’t believe in beginnings middle and ends. Maybe this is a poem that’s about the troubles of this sort of poetry.

 

Jessica Lowenthal: It’s funny that this poem has such an emphatic beginning. Usually the poem would start, “That’s silly, how can there be a wrong direction”, in the middle instead of the beginning. He has a beginning and he has an end here.

 

Al Filreis: He has a very strong beginning, almost a once upon a time. He uses the word “then” many times. “Then” is a very narrow direction kind of word. Back to this social convention, the talk of relationships. The relationship is like a house in the poem, here and there, and one almost has a sense that the house is part of the narrative. “We’ve been in this house together”, and I would simply say that Your Name Here the book has several poems… The very first poem in the volume is a beautiful poem about being in the house with someone the speaker loves and missing that, not having that now, there’s something missing here. But here they decide, or one of the two speakers decides to fumigate the house, spring cleaning as a kind of figure for starting the relationship again. Then he says, “Say, you know / that’s probably what’s wrong—the beginnings concept, I mean.” As if to say no, we can’t just clean the house. If we clean the house we’ll feel better and expect the relationship to be better? No, this is not going to work. And he’s back to his old tricks.

 

Gregory Djanikian: I think it’s another declaration. I think the line that comes after that is “I aver there are no beginnings”.

 

Al Filreis: “Though there were perhaps some / sometime.”

 

Gregory Djanikian: He undermines his declarations throughout. The first —

 

Al Filreis: But is it because he’s too, sorry John Ashbery wherever you are, because he’s a little chicken? He can’t quite say something as conventional as there are no beginnings. That seems too obvious at this point. He has to throw on the Asherbian tag. Stevens did this all the time, if one may say so, just a kind of throw off. Do you think he’s not quite got the nerve to admit this?

Gregory Djanikian: I don’t know whether it’s nerve or not. I think it’s part of the poem and the poem’s strategy to get to the end to that movie theatre. I think it’s a pome about trying to know, trying to locate, trying to be someplace and understanding through the course of the poem that’s impossible. 

 

John Ashbery:

That armchair is really too lugubrious.

We’ve got to change all the furniture, fumigate the house,

talk our relationship back to its beginnings. Say, you know

that’s probably what’s wrong—the beginnings concept, I mean.

I aver there are no beginnings, though there were perhaps some

sometime.

 

Thomas Devaney: He’s being sly or coy when he says “Though there were perhaps some sometime”. It feels that way sometimes for him. He’s always sort of trying to get away from something that he’s always just seemingly said. It seems to me that in the poem it feels right.

 

Jessica Lowenthal: I also think there’s room here for the sense that the reason the speaker pulls away from the emphatic statement is that he’s very willing and interested in allowing the other voice to intrude upon his own. That mixing up of the two voices, quotation marks disappearing, suddenly the two voices are — I guess you can’t see that when you hear it, but the two voices get mixed up so the second argument becomes part of the first argument, therefore beginnings don’t exist and beginnings do exist.


Al Filreis: And it’s the very thought that there might have been beginnings sometime that creates the memory at the end. The very thought that there aren’t any beginnings anymore but there were sometime, and then we get this beginning, this beautiful set piece story about two people meeting. On one hand, you’re getting that story as a result of the decision that there aren’t any beginnings anymore. This is an beginning of the sort that you used to have but can’t anymore. It’s not only a memory, but a memory of when there were beginnings.

 

Thomas Devaney: Beginnings concept.

 

Al Filreis: The beginnings concept. It’s almost in a way a pre-memory, a memory of a beginning of the sort you would have before an Ashbery poem ever existed.


Gregory Djanikian: But you’re saying Ashbery is in fact nostalgic for how poems work.

 

Al Filreis: I am saying that. I’m saying that this is a poem about a poetry that cannot accommodate once upon a time-ness, but imagines a time when there were such things and then tries it out at the end.

 

John Ashbery:

I aver there are no beginnings, though there were perhaps some

sometime. We’d stopped, to look at the poster the movie theater

 

had placed freestanding on the sidewalk. The lobby cards

drew us in. It was afternoon, we found ourselves

sitting at the end of a row in the balcony; the theater was unexpectedly

crowded. That was the day we first realized we didn’t fully

know our names, yours or mine, and we left quietly

amid the gray snow falling. Twilight had already set in.

 

Al Filreis: So what is the effect of this story? Quite aside from what we expect from John Ashbery. You know this story; two people have met outside of a movie theatre and they go in, they didn’t know each others names, and it’s a book called Your Name Here, and it’s full of nostalgia. What’s the significance of this story? Are you moved by it?

 

Gregory Djanikian: I’m not particularly moves by it to tell you the truth. Only because — Well, I’m moved by it cerebrally, oddly enough. The reason why I am is because, it’s very Eliotesque, in the beginning is the end. Because he says that was the day, it’s the day of the meeting “we realized we didn’t fully know our names, yours or mine, and we left quietly”. “Twilight had already set in”. The combination of coming together and moving apart is enacted by those images.

 

Al Filreis: Tom, what do you think of this?

Thomas Devaney: Well, I think it’s beautiful, the ending.

 

Al Filreis: Oh good, we have a disagreement.

 

Thomas Devaney: “That was the day we first realized we didn’t fully / know our names, yours or mine, and we left quietly / amid the gray snow falling.” It’s a notation, not a feeling, Ashbery does have feelings, it seems to me.

Al Filreis: Jessica, which side are you on here?

Jessica Lowenthal: I’m moved by it cerebrally like Greg, I guess. I’m interested, if one problem is we have no narratives, we have no beginnings, we have no endings necessarily, what do we have? We have particulars. We have that night, that chair, that day. To have that day be among the particulars that make up a relationship, that’s interesting.

 

Al Filreis: I’m going to cause a tie, because I’m with Tom. I’m very moved by it. For me, the emotion of it is about the poet recognizing something about his poetry and poetics. If it were only about the relationship, I would be unmoved by it ,because it’s such a set piece. But it seems to me it’s a direct contradiction in a conventional form of the statement that there are no beginnings. There damn well better be beginnings because that’s where we started. So he’s violating a basic principle of his poetry which keeps him I think very much alive. He’s allowed to move into a different kind of poetics in order to do that. That freedom is moving, it’s almost elegiac. It’s almost a way of saying farewell to a style.

 

Gregory Djanikian: But it’s over the top, isn’t it? That last line, “amid the gray snow falling. Twilight had already set in.” It’s kind of melodramatic for heaven sakes.

 

Al Filreis: That’s my point. My point is the set piece is created for me as a moving way of saying I’m wrong about my notion of beginnings, middles and ends. I’m wrong about cause and effect. There is a wrong direction. You are absent, I wish you were here, really. Before we get to the gathering paradise segment of our show and feeling that we can talk a lot more about this poem, I’d like to invite one of you to offer a final word. Maybe something you’ve wanted to say but haven’t had a chance. Tom?

Thomas Devaney: Well, I think the poem “Crossroads of the Past”, there’s a sense that the poem might be a chronicle of it’s own making, this conversation that’s going on. But what I really feel about it is it’s a chronicle of it’s unmaking. That’s where the active alive part of it comes for me. That’s a strange kind of concept, but he won’t let well enough alone, and I think he’s honouring that past, not actually in a nostalgic way as has been said, but in this way that is true to his own poetic sensibility.

 

Gregory Djanikian: I’d also like to say —

 

Al Filreis: And now Greg’s getting a final word!

Gregory Djanikian: Oh, sorry.

 

Al Filreis: No, it’s good, go on (LAUGHING).

 

Gregory Djanikian: The end is purely descriptive. It’s a movement toward description. All along he’s been qualitative, he’s been judging, he’s been saying right, wrong, t here are no beginnings, etc. This is a purely cinematic ending, as though I feel Ashbery is pulling himself back from the poem.


Al Filreis: Well, we like to end Poem Talk with a minute or two of gathering paradise, a chance for several of us to spread wide our narrow hands to gather a little something really poetically good, to hail, puff up, commend someone or something going on in the poetry world. Who wants to gather a little paradise?

 

Gregory Djanikian: I’d like to recommend an older book, it’s an anthology by Carolyn Forché and it’s called Against Forgetting: 20th Century Poetry of Witness. I guess I do so because this last book of mine was about the genocide, and the poems in this anthology are quite wonderful in their response to all sorts of catastrophic events.


Al Filreis: Thank you. Tom?

Thomas Devaney: I want to mention a poet, I just received a chapbook in the mail. Her name is Tetra Balestri, it’s a chapbook by a press I never heard of called Green Zone. I don’t like the title of this book at all, it’s called Cheap Imitations. She must be a younger poet but each poem in the book strikes me as lovely. Her name is Tetra Balestri. The book is Cheap Imitations, and seems wonderful to me.


Al Filreis: Thank you. Well, that’s all the beginnings middle and ends we have time for at Poem Talk today. Poem Talk at The Writer’s House, it’s a collaboration of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing and the Kelly Writer’s House at the University of Pennsylvania and The Poetry Foundation, poetryfoundation.org. Thanks to my guests, Tom Devaney, Jessica Lowenthal and Gregory Djanikian. To my co-producer Mark Lindsay and Poem Talk’s director and editor Steve McLaughlin, with a shoutout to Anne Halsey of The Poetry Foundation who’s enthusiasm for this idea got us started. This is Al Filreis and I hope you’ll join us again soon for another Poem Talk.

Hosted by Al Filreis and featuring poets Thomas Devaney, Gregory Djanikian & Jessica Lowenthal.

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