Slips of the Pun: Signifying Sex in the Poetry of John Ashbery

Publikation: Konferencebidrag uden forlag/tidsskriftPaper/skriftligt oplægForskning


This paper analyses the role of wordplay or punning in some of John Ashbery’s poems. Special emphasis will be put on how paronomasia – the more technical term for wordplay – functions as a verbal invitation to sexualize Ashbery’s poetic signified tout court. Yet, as will also be argued, his poems are just as much about how their punning is a mere suggestive play with words, having no determinate, let alone finally determinable sense – sexual or otherwise. Incidentally, Ashbery’s poetic ‘I’ in his long poem “A Wave” (1984) asks: “Were we making sense?” The question is interesting from two points of view. On the one hand, it obviously raises the question of signification and interpretation. On the other hand, it seems to pun on the double meaning of the word ‘sense’, thus signifying not only ‘meaning’, but also ‘sensuality’. In this way, Ashbery’s poem turns out to read as ‘two different stories’ at the same time, the second one of which gets told as a result of a simple slip of a pun. If one story of the poem is the poet-speaker’s hermeneutic quest for the possible meaningfulness of a past love affair, the other – somewhat less conspicuously – introduces his attempt to remember and recover the bodily sexual presence of the lost lover. The poem playfully entangles one story with the other so as to make them barely distinguishable. Incessant wordplay makes it henceforth impossible to tell the difference between a spiritual and a fleshly reading of the poem, and perhaps such a difference does not really matter in the end. At any rate, the reader is left wondering how literally he ought to take the poet-speaker’s punning prediction that he and his lover “’ll/Stay in touch”. And what about the reader’s own attempt to ‘make sense’ of Ashbery’s puns? To which extent does he or she become engaged in a sexual relationship with them if one extends Ashbery’s playing with word to what goes one in the reader’s interpretive act? Ashbery’s friend and fellow poet Kenneth Koch once said of the former’s poetry that “it wants to go to bed with you”.
Antal sider6
StatusUdgivet - 2004
BegivenhedPoetry and Sexuality - Department of English Studies, University of Stirling, Stirling, Storbritannien
Varighed: 30 jun. 20044 jul. 2004


KonferencePoetry and Sexuality
LokationDepartment of English Studies, University of Stirling


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