Saturday, December 29, 2007

Some Thoughts on John Ashbery's "Some Trees"

John Ashbery's wonderful "Some Trees" seems in many ways a response to Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man.” In both poems, an object or group of objects in the material world, arbitrarily chosen and yet significant because of that choice, is the occasion for a med­itation on how to live in that world, how to make one’s way through a world not of one’s making. In Stevens’s poem, one “must” have a winter’s mind, the mind of a man made of snow (which is to say, a man who is not a man at all), to look out on the winter landscape and perceive no misery there, in the sound of the wind and the leaves in the wind. But what does “must” mean? That one should have such a mind, that one should turn such a colder eye upon the world, declining to invest it with feeling and meaning? Or that only an actual snow man, “nothing himself,” at one with his wintry land­scape (indeed, a feature of that landscape), could so see the world, perceiving “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” Given how much of something the poem presents us (nothing is nothing to see), asks us to behold, I would settle on the latter point of view.

“Some Trees” presents a friendlier landscape, although an equally contingent one. These are, after all, only “some” trees: there is no guarantee that any other trees will offer such muted epiphanies, or even that these trees would do so on a different morning. “These are amazing.” These and no other trees? Or would any group of trees so amaze, if looked at properly? (I am reminded that for William Carlos Williams, poetry was a mode of attention, and anything could be­come a poem if paid the right sort of attention.) These trees are amaz­ing in part because they are in relation, “each / Joining a neighbor.” As Nietzsche wrote, before there can be one, there must be two: that everything connects is a never-ceasing source of wonder. And these mute trees speak, their “still performance” a silent analogue of speech. In his sonnet “Correspondences,” another poem about rela­tion, Baudelaire wrote that nature is a living temple from whose pillars confused words issue forth. Are not these trees, some trees at least, such pillars in nature’s temple?

And we have arranged to meet by accident (a throw of the dice will never abolish chance, as Mallarmé has reminded us) far from the world and yet wholly within it, agreeing with its speaking picture, its silent discourse. As far from the world as agreeing with it is very close indeed, though never fully there (can we ever be fully there, fully present?), on this morning that seems full of possibility, as beginnings always seem to be. And suddenly we are “what the trees try // to tell us we are,” though the poem never tells us what that is (to do so might shut down possibility), or even who “we” are. The poem is intimate (every reader is invited to be part of this “we,” like these trees, each joining its neighbor) and yet distant, from the world, from any reader (who is this we of whom we are not only invited but assumed to be part?). The trees, after all, are together yet apart: rooted in place, they cannot move any closer to one another or, for that matter, any further apart.

But these trees mean something, or so that is what they try to tell us, whoever we are. But how do we know what they are trying to tell us, or that they are trying to tell us anything? It is in this way that the poem responds to “The Snow Man”: it is, after all, “a winter morning,” and the days are “Placed in a puzzling light” not unlike Stevens’s “distant glitter // Of the January sun,” cold light in which one sees “the junipers shagged with ice, / The spruces rough” in that distant glitter. More trees seen in winter light, some trees and not other trees (pine trees, junipers, spruces). The trees in Ashbery’s win­ter morning are probably bare too, perhaps also crusted with snow, shagged with ice. And maybe it is morning in Stevens’s poem, the sun not rising far above the horizon all day.

We behold some trees and they mean to us, we hear some wind and it means to us. We are not snow men. In Stevens’s poem, what we see is the burden the bare trees bear, but also the beauty of that burden: cold pastoral. What we hear in the wind’s sound, in the sound of the leaves the wind carries and drops, carries and drops, is misery. One must have a mind of winter not to hear it, and who has such a mind? Not the speaker of this poem. In Ashbery’s, we see those trees and somehow hear them too. They mean, but what they mean is the possibility of joy: “soon / We may touch, love, explain.” Not now, and not certainly, but we may, and we may soon. (This seems a bright and sunny winter morning, cold but invigorating.) The words that issue from nature’s pillars are after all confused, but that’s to be expected when speech has become a still performance, or rather, when it is as though a still performance were speech, as though speech had become such a tableau vivant.

We have not invented such loveliness (the loveliness of hope, the beauty of potential), and we are glad not to have. It is some­thing beyond us, an outside that confirms and consoles us. It sur­rounds us, a comfort but also a constraint: contra Schopenhauer, the world is not all will and idea. As Stevens writes in his “Adagia,” “All of our ideas come from the natural world: Trees = umbrellas.” Or at least some trees do, a shelter from the rain or even from the snow.

The silence is already filled with noises (the noise of the wind, per­haps, of a few leaves in the wind, some leaves). The world around us, this little piece of it, this place in which we have arranged to find ourselves, to meet one another and our world by chance, is “A canvas on which emerges / A chorus of smiles” (the synesthesia is, I think, deliberate, the speech of a still performance, some trees’ soundless urgings). It is “a winter morning, / Placed in puzzling light”: we can experience but never wholly understand the world; the light discloses but does not explain. And it is moving: we are moved, whoever we are this morning, but the world is moving too, life is all motion. “Minute by minute they change,” writes Yeats; and Stevens reminds us that the blackbird whirling in the autumn winds (so close to winter, yet so far) is just a small part of the pan­tomime. The days are reticent, at least our days are reticent—or rather, our days have put on such reticence (the reticence that tells us so much once we choose to really listen, so much we have not invented but we have definitely interpreted). We may soon touch, love, explain (all these things that trees can’t do, not some trees, not any trees), but when we don’t know, or even if these things will happen at all. Right here, right now, these implications, innuendos, inflections of morning light seem sufficient: “These accents seem their own defense.” What else can be expected of the world but hints? That the world should speak at all, however reticently, in however puzzling a winter morning light, is enough, is amazing indeed.

Those sure are some trees.

This is an excerpt from my essay "Only in the Light of Lost Words Can We Imagine Our Rewards," which appears in the special section of Conjunctions issue 49 celebrating John Ashbery's eightieth birthday and also here on the Conjunctions web site.


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