Ashbery Alpha and Omega: Presentism, Historicism, and Vice Versa

Author:Barrett Watten Time:2019-07-10 Click:

This reading of a single poem from the last collection of verse John Ashbery published before his death in 2017 sees it as an example of a concept of “presentism” that differs from modernist or postmodern accounts of the “present” associated with abstraction or immanence. Rather, Ashbery’s presentism is historical in being based on overlapping and discontinuous linguistic and experiential frames. Ashbery’s poetic use of the content of experience is always mediated through its presentation as information, ranging from high to low values and often employing “low-mimetic,” pop cultural elements. What results is a suspension of certainty in which meaning is structured and informed by its status as information. Thus leaving open questions of knowledge, Ashbery’s poetry does not represent a fully present consciousness but relies on forms of cognition and information processing that are nonconscious, operating in the background and informed by decades of his practice as a poet. A brief comparison with the late paintings of Willem de Kooning, who experienced cognitive disability at the end of his life, points out similar nonconscious forms of cognition such as motor skill and even aesthetic judgment. The reading is thus informed by information theory, cognitive science, and neurophysiology in showing how Ashbery’s late style makes a present that is historical and structured on his entire oeuvre.

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