Jerry Estrin on: "Ketjak"

"Waking in the dark now, more so each day, the year's slide. Numbers, Mind and Body. The partial function in the connective touch. You come at last into the realization as into a banquet room, domed perhaps but with chandeliers, that a lush ordering of events is no different than any other so that one might as well eat squid as tripe or plums, dressed in the regalia of tennis, the perceiving in the punchbowl reflection a costume as clownish as it is offensive. What is here. Red eye. The light has no right. Notational process, musical juncture."

Does your orientation invert through the suppression of the verb from "Numbers, Mind and Body"? You look around for a connection, producing scattered if waking notes. Perhaps you've been given a diary note, a fragmented perception of passing time, perhaps an assertion of progress: "more so each day", etc. Such connotations seem quite literal, a report of condition. "Numbers" as in reference to the sentence prosody, the "Numbers" which indicate where the sentences would appear -- so that the positive allusion plus the jingle of "Numbers" could tie in the calculated response to the time of the writing to time (in general? which time?), a proclaimed organization of time which tunes up the "Body" and the "Mind". Or perhaps "Numbers, Mind, and Body" can be read as ironic public relations. "The partial function" stands isolate, announcing itself, rejecting the connection with "Body" and "Mind", or the naming of such processes. Or perhaps it works as a unit in a list with no logical linking. Has a myth of continuity just been critiqued? The cluster of so many abstract nominals appear to refocus the argument, moving from the general to the specific. You expect some sort of resolution, and the writing appears to be gesturing in that direction, yet none occurs. So perhaps you can read this section as a mockery of finitude. But how did "You" get into a "banquet room"? How did the writer? -- perhaps by the "The partial function in the connective touch" which has been stationed in apposition, so that "You come at last" with its shifter pointing either at the reader or the writer seems to be there as a reward. The complete sentence coming after the noun phrase pulls the fragments into an articulated position, however convoluted by the intersecting metaphors, so that your dilemma ("Rhythm section of the Horns of the Dilemma" as Ron Silliman will write near the end of Ketjak) or language's openness or void is again labelled by the interrogative, "What is here" (or is it a question?), setting up the expectation of an answer which "Red eye" partially satisfies, both in its rhythmical relief, and in its anaphoric employment, throwing your mind back to "perceiving" -- as does "The light has no right", the assertion of consonance in "red" and "right", the semantic train set up by "reflection" "perceiving" "costume" all seeming to progress vertically toward "light", yet the negation coupled with the rhyme which focuses and isolates the physical properties of the words, cancels any closure: "The light has no right." etc.

From "Exorcise Your Monkey": Reading Ketjak. From The Difficulties (1985).

Leslie Wolf: On "Daffy Duck in Hollywood"

… A close look at even the sounds of some of his lines belies the charge that the poet is not exercising control. … At the end of "Hop o’ My Thumb" –

There are still other made-up countries

Where we can hide forever,

Wasted with eternal desire and sadness,

Sucking the sherberts, crooning the tunes, naming the names.

– the three pairs of words in the last line move from the consonance to rhyme to literal identity, enacting a subliminal form of convergence. These lines may have been composed rapidly, but we cannot help but see how wedded to the poem’s ambitions are its technical resources.

Let us finally consider one of Ashbery’s most challenging poems, one that engages his entire methodology, to see how we are taken to a place "both here / And not there," where the freedom to inhabit images and ideas is not hampered by formal considerations or "plausibility." Clement Greenberg has found, in paintings like [Willem de Kooning’s] Gotham News, a "plastic and descriptive painterliness that is applied to abstract ends but continues to suggest representational ones" [in "After Abstract Expressionism," in New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970, ed. Henry Geldzahler [New York: Dutton, 1969), p. 363]. He calls this "homeless representation" and I think the late poem "Daffy Duck in Hollywood" – a self-portrait, again – we can discover a verbal equivalent. … The sheer length and number of directions taken by some of his sentences are an embodiment of the difficulty with which the mind mired in "consciousness of history" finds its way. Indeed, Ashbery sometimes seems to have the same aspirations for a single statement that poets like [John] Donne brought to whole poems. What is exhilirating and new in this is the way the network of voices in the poem is used to animate and propel the almost impossibly eclectic and allusive diction. This poetry asks readers to hear inflections not only in the briefst fragments but also in the image-choked busyness of complex sentences. For only then are the attitudes summoned that make the poem’s arguments and reversals into emblems of a complicated response to experience. …

This poem, like de Kooning’s paintings of the fifties and his even more fluid masterpieces of the mid-seventies, appropriates the world and transports it into the imagination where we can move with a freedom impossible in any representational art. Ashbery involves us in sentences whose machinery makes us feel how, not what, they mean and after we have become sensitive to the moves that serve his "desperate quest masked as an ease with things" ([Harold] Bloom), we become ourselves the medium for their operation. This poetry creates in us a palpable current of feeling that is held like some plastic entity, to be shaped, twisted, expanded and diffused, that blossoms from within itself and is replaced by new blossoming. …

From Leslie Wolf, "The Brushstroke’s Integrity: The Poetry of John Ashbery and the Art of Painting" in David Lehman, ed. Beyond Amazement: New Essays on John Ashbery (Ithaca: Cornell U P, 1980), 249-250, 253-254.