……..Eliot…………….Perloff…………….Ashbery…..Dusty Springfield

“One would never mistake an Ashbery poem for an Eliot one.”

Breakthrough narratives, it is true, are always forced to simplify the work of the past from which the new text deviates. I plead guilty to this charge in my own references to Eliot or Stevens in The Poetics of Indeterminacy (1981). Of course the symbolic structure of The Waste Land is not as easily understood as I implied in that study, but I stand by my original distinction between the “logic of metaphor” (Eliot’s phrase for St. John Perse) of The Waste Land and the much greater indeterminacy of the Ashbery lyric in question, “These Lacustrine Cities” from Rivers and Mountains (1966). Indeed, however great the debt Ashbery owes to the “modernism” of Eliot, one would never, as I suggested in my book, mistake an Ashbery poem for an Eliot one.

…………….Marjorie Perloff,  ‘Normalizing John Ashbery,’ Jacket Magazine

Only, that is, when one isn’t lost in the windmills of one’s mind…



Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind. But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.

Other echoes inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush? Into our first world.

There they were, dignified, invisible,
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air,
And the bird called, in response to
The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery,
And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at.

There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.
So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,
Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
To look down into the drained pool.

……………………………………………..–T.T. Initial



These lacustrine cities grew out of loathing
Into something forgetful, although angry with history.
They are the product of an idea: that man is horrible, for instance,
Though this is only one example.

They emerged until a tower
Controlled the sky, and with artifice dipped back
Into the past for swans and tapering branches,
Burning, until all that hate was transformed into useless love.

Then you are left with an idea of yourself
And the feeling of ascending emptiness of the afternoon
Which must be charged to the embarrassment of others
Who fly by you like beacons.

The night is a sentinel.
Much of your time has been occupied by creative game
Until now, but we have all-inclusive plans for you.
We had thought, for instance, of sending you to the middle of the desert,

To a violent sea, or of having the closeness of the others be air
To you, pressing you back into a startled dream
As sea-breezes greet a child’s face.
But the past is already here, and you are nursing some private project.

The worst is not over, yet I know
You will be happy here. Because of the logic
Of your situation, which is something no climate can outsmart.
Tender and insouciant by turns, you see

You have built a mountain of something,
Thoughtfully pouring all your energy into this single monument,
Whose wind is desire starching a petal,
Whose disappointment broke into a rainbow of tears.

……………………………………………..–Johnny Ashbery



Like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel,
Never ending or beginning on an ever spinning reel,
Like a snowball down a mountain or a carnival balloon,
Like a carousel that’s turning running rings around the moon,
Like a clock whose hands are sweeping  past the minutes of a face,
And the world is like an apple whirling silently in space,
Like the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind.

Like a tunnel that you follow to a tunnel of its own,
Down a hollow to a cavern where the sun has never shone,
Like a door that keeps revolving in a half-forgotten dream,
Or the ripples from a pebble someone throws into a stream,
Like a clock whose hands are sweeping  past the minutes of a face,
And the world is like an apple whirling silently in space,
Like the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind.

Keys that jingle in your pocket, words that jangle in your head,
Why did summer go so quickly?  Was it something that I said?
Lovers walk along a shore and leave their footprints in the sand;
Is the sound of distant drumming just the fingers of your hand?
Pictures hanging in a hallway and the fragments of a song,
Half-remembered names and faces, but to whom to you belong?
When you knew that it was over, were you suddenly aware
That the autumn leaves were turning to the color of her hair?
Like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel,
Never ending or beginning on an ever spinning reel,
As the images unwind, like the circles that you find
In the windmills of your mind.


…..Words & Music:  Alan & Marilyn Bergman & Michel Legrand
Vocals:  Dusty Springfield
Drums & Ambiguity:  Tommy Eliot
Kazoo & Erudition:  Johnny Ashbery
Spoons, Bones & Foetics: Tommy Brady
Producer:  Marjorie Pull-it-off


1 Comment

  1. thomasbrady said,

    December 2, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    It is interesting to juxtapose Ashbery, Eliot and a pop song which all attempt the same trance-like effect.

    As in a chemical experiment, the pop song ‘coaxes out’ the pretentiousness of the Eliot and the Ashbery and allows the scientist to see what the poetry wishes to acheive. If Eliot and Ashbery are too successful at what they are attempting, they fail. To win by failing is the strategy of the nerd/intellectual/artist/trickster.

    Part of the reason why the experiment works is because the pop song is pretentious as well, and while the song was a “hit” with a wide audience when it was released, it quickly fell in the estimation of the public for that reason.

    The chemical reaction here between pretentious modernist high-brow, sly but pretentious post-modernist high-brow and 1960s ‘pop’ middle-brow pretentiousness successfully isolates the factor P, which pretentious critics like Perloff are determined to hide in their pretentious productions.

    It would take the pedantry of an Yvor Winters at least a week to furnish what has been discovered in this simple experiment here.

    Welcome to our laboratory!