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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Number 49: John Ashbery "Sleepers Awake"

Sleepers Awake

Cervantes was asleep when he wrote Don Quixote.
Joyce slept during the Wandering Rocks section of Ulysses.
Homer nodded and occasionally slept during the greater part of the Iliad; he was awake however when he wrote the Odyssey.
Proust snored his way through The Captive, as have legions of his readers after him.
Melville was asleep at the wheel for much of Moby-Dick.
Fitzgerald slept through Tender Is the Night, which is perhaps not so surprising,
but the fact that Mann slumbered on the very slopes of The Magic Mountain is quite extraordinary—that he wrote it, even more so.
Kafka, of course, never slept, even while not writing or on bank holidays.
No one knows too much about George Eliot’s writing habits—my guess is she would sleep a few minutes, wake up and write something, then pop back to sleep again.
Lew Wallace’s forty winks came, incredibly, during the chariot race in Ben-Hur.
Emily Dickinson slept on her cold, narrow bed in Amherst.
When she awoke there would be a new poem inscribed by Jack Frost on the windowpane; outside, glass foliage chimed.
Good old Walt snored as he wrote and, like so many of us, insisted he didn’t.
Maugham snored on the Riviera.
Agatha Christie slept daintily, as a woman sleeps, which is why her novels are like tea sandwiches—artistic, for the most part.
I sleep when I cannot avoid it; my writing and sleeping are constantly improving.

I have other things to say, but shall not detain you much.
Never go out in a boat with an author—they cannot tell when they are over water.
Birds make poor role models.
A philosopher should be shown the door, but don’t, under any circumstances, try it.
Slaves make good servants.
Brushing the teeth may not always improve the appearance.
Store clean rags in old pillow cases.
Feed a dog only when he barks.
Flush tea leaves down the toilet, coffee grounds down the sink.
Beware of anonymous letters—you may have written them, in a wordless implosion of sleep

--John Ashbery

Hap Notes: John Ashbery (born 1927) has won every award you can win for poetry in the U.S. His eccentric mix of metaphor and memory and art is easily read but not so easily explicated. One of the things I'll say about his work that may or may not help you is this: stop making sense. Some of his poetry will puzzle you and it's purposeful. Some of it will hit you as just right and you'll not be able to explain why. Some of it will miss you; just let it go. Enjoy the ride.

Whenever you get too tangled up in the lives of men and women of letters, it's a good idea to read this poem. Ashbery is poking fun at our preoccupation with the lives of writers and their works. He's poking a little at them, too. Even if you wrote the greatest book of all time, you still have to sleep, you're still human, you still function pretty much like every other human being on the planet. Poets, to paraphrase everybody's grandpa, put their pants on one leg at a time, just like everybody else. By the way, it's worth noting that sometimes these authors could put themselves to sleep with their work, let alone the reader.

While he's at it, Ashbery gives us a surreal litany, in the last nine lines of the poem, of self-help instructions. We read warnings and instructions like this all the time on the sides of aspirin bottles, in instruction manuals for power tools, in magazines, in recipes. We sleep-walk through a lot of this reading, just as we often sleepwalk through "the classics." The odd list is crafted to be familiar but with surprising twists. He's trying to wake you up.

Of course, I don't want to belittle how truly funny the poem is, either. One suspects a nervous Kafka never slept and who hasn't fallen asleep over a few of the whaling descriptions in Moby Dick or another long description in Proust? The Emily Dickinson line sums up, amusingly, the fairy magic of her work, and its often too-precious conclusions. These one sentence lines are hilarious, purposely glib, summations of the author's works. It's a fun poem to read. This alone, makes it wonderful.

Ashbery had the same kind of connections Frank O'Hara had to the art world and, at first, he wanted to be an artist. After he graduated cum laude from Harvard in 1949, he wrote art criticism for New York magazine and Newsweek and edited and wrote for many short-lived art and literature magazines. He's translated the work of several French poets (Jean Perrault, Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy, Ramond Roussell) and had a teaching career starting at Brooklyn College. He retired from Bard in 2008 but he still does packed-house readings all over the country.

Ashbery is certainly a major American poet. He has almost single-handedly dragged poetry with him into the late 20th and early 21st century when everyone else was flailing for a "voice." His voice has been strong and influential. I often think of Ashbery's fantastic and surreal poetry is him unwinding a Wallace Stevens poem and putting it back together as a Grace Hartigan painting. Sometimes his poems are more like spin-art and they're a bit harder to sift through. Just don't get too worried if you don't understand everything- who ever understands every little thing in every poem? And if someone does, or think they do; that doesn't mean they're right.

I suppose it's also worth noting that "Sleepers Awake!" is a well-known Lutheran hymn by Phillip Nicolai which is infused to a Bach cantata. The hymn is always scheduled in the lectionary for pre-Easter. It tells the story of the sleepy ten virgins with the lamps, five of whom had oil to light the way for the bridegroom (a Christ analogy), five of whom did not. So at midnight, when the bridegroom finally showed up (late, I might add), the women were sleeping and had to run out with their lamps to light his way. Sort of a "be prepared story." The Sleeper Awakened is an Arabian tale, also. There's something in that for the poem too.

Another thing to consider is where you are when you sleep. You may be writing yourself anonymous letters which take the form of dreams. What exactly is sleep? And isn't that list of instructions somewhat like an anonymous letter from the culture, which is often asleep at the wheel? Also, there is something to be said for the idea that much of writing is as inspired as a sleeper's dream. Who hasn't used some permutation of the phrase "they could do that in their sleep" to signify someone's easy talent? Just some suggestions.

Here's a good Ashbery quote: “I think I’m a rather funny person. I like my poems to include as many things in them as possible. Humor, tragedy, love, time, all the things that are traditional in poetry—I like having them happening all at once.”

You can find more Ashbery here:

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