Date: Thu, 18 Nov 1999 14:46:03 -0500 (EST) WE BEGIN WITH "SOME TREES" BY ASHBERY - AND I START OFF THE HARD WORK BY INTERPRETING THE POEM FROM THE BEGINNING ---------------------------- 88'ers: Okay, here we go with a small selection of Ashbery's characteristic poems. Let's start with "Some Trees." The text of the poem is below. It's also of course on the 88v web site. I'll start trying to understand the word, the phrases, the lines, and I hope other 88'ers will pick up the collective project of "reading" or interpreting the poem, and we'll see if, along the way, we can learn a few things about the special hard work of reading Ashbery. Mike Magee is still with us so perhaps he can help too. The poem is called "Some Trees" and that title suggests a number of readings: (1) the poem is going to be about just some trees, really any old trees, where the word "some" means "just any ones"--some trees as in "some pennies," "some dust," "some foul balls," "some minor considerations"; (2) these are *some* trees; wow!; like you have *some* diamond there on your ring, or *some* head of hair, or *some* kinda big fat novel you're reading; = these are extraordinary (perhaps very beautiful); and/or (3) these are a quantity of some trees as opposed to just one tree alone or many trees that are too many to count as "some" (more like a forest); this poem is about a number less than a forest and more than just one. The first three words of the poem - "These are amazing" - suggest perhaps that the selectiveness or specialness in interpretations 2 and 3 of the title above are probably right, at least for now. Why is the speaker amazed at just some trees? Well, the colon ("amazing:") after amazing suggests that the fact that the trees each join a neighbor is part of their amazing quality. They're amazing because each join a neighbor. What's so amazing about these trees that seem to be growing near each other and folding over each other, or growing in and among each other? It's a small grove of trees. The trees have a relation, or form a relation. So you're thinking: is this a poem about amazing relations? What kind of relation? Well, it's not clear what kind of relation, in part because the poem doesn't speak straightforwardly about them--not even as a matter of unambiguous grammar. To jump ahead just a moment, look at the odd double or ambiguous grammar of this phrasing: Arranging by chance To meet as far this morning From the world as agreeing With it, That's hard to get!! Look at the grammar. You see "as far ...as" in there and you try to work out the logic of such language of comparison: as far as I'm concerned as far as I can get from the city but then you realize that it's also working with another kind of "as"-centered idiom: as far from as in as far from the city as I can get "as far as" or "as far from" So how grammatically does the first "as" work? Does it get paired logically with "far as" (as far as) or does it get paired logically with "from" (as far from)? We don't know. It does work out okay in the end but it's hard to read at first. These people, whoever they are (we don't know!), have arranged to meet as far from the world as they agree with the world. Their distance from the world, when they agree to meet, is equal to (or analogous to) their disagreement with the world. So presumably they disagree with the world and they've gone somewhere to meet each other marking out a distance from the world that matches their disagreement. And they seem to be meeting under or near these amazing trees. Their agreeing to meet is based on their disagreement with the world. So their relation is based on a non-relation with the world. Perhaps this is the definition of what's amazing about a relation of "some" as opposed to "all" or "others" or "many." Now these amazing trees "meet" in a certain way too, don't they? So there seems to be some relation between the way the trees relate to each other and they way the people (presumably two people -- you and I) who are meeting out here relate to each other. And suddenly the two people who are meeting here realize that they are what they trees are trying to tell them they are. you and I Are suddenly what the trees try To tell us we are: That their merely being there Means something.... So simply having come away, to these amazing trees, to meet has a meaning, and the trees can somehow tell them that. Relating is meeting and meeting is meaning. (Meaning is always in relation--juxtaposition. If this is even partly what the poem is saying about two people meeting--the commerce of two people--then it's already clearly Ashberyian; Ashbery's construction of language often or always suggests that context and relation is everything. Nothing means anything standing alone.) Back up a little. The beginning of the poem has something else in it: These are amazing: each Joining a neighbor, as though speech ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ Were a still performance. ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ Arranging by chance To meet as far this morning From the world as agreeing With it, you and I Are suddenly what the trees try To tell us we are.... The trees form a relation or connection, by growing and swaying into and joining each other, and they do this relating as if speech were a performance made out of stillness. If they are swaying trees, and relating that way, this doesn't make sense. Maybe they or their leaves do sway or shimmer (later in the poem this seems to be so) but the trees don't move--they are rooted. Trees don't agree to meet somewhere. Their relation is not a matter of choice? They don't have a relation because they don't agree with the world! Their swaying or relating to each other can still be said to be a performance and yet be still. (Still as in rooted, founded, based, steady, naturally stuck.) The word "performance" also suggests a mask: the trees are given the human-relations quality of pretending or posing or being something they otherwise are not. And speech? Well, trees don't speak, so they are amazing because their relational ability--their amazing relations--offer a kind of speech-through-still-performance. A kind of mime of nature. And maybe that's what the trees convey when the couple who have gone away to meet under the trees sense that the trees are telling them what they are. Phew! Okay, I started. Now will someone pick it up from here.....? You don't have to do as much as I've done. You can take a phrase or a line, or you can try to clarify another meaning you see in a part of the poem I've already covered. If you go on from here, you can start with the part about the touching, loving, explaining pair who meet under the trees, in this section: you and I Are suddenly what the trees try To tell us we are: That their merely being there Means something; that soon We may touch, love, explain. And glad not to have invented Some comeliness, we are surrounded: --Al Here's the poem: John Ashbery, "Some Trees" These are amazing: each Joining a neighbor, as though speech Were a still performance. Arranging by chance To meet as far this morning From the world as agreeing With it, you and I Are suddenly what the trees try To tell us we are: That their merely being there Means something; that soon We may touch, love, explain. And glad not to have invented Some comeliness, we are surrounded: A silence already filled with noises, A canvas on which emerges A chorus of smiles, a winter morning. Place in a puzzling light, and moving, Our days put on such reticence These accents seem their own defense.