The ABC of Reading Metaphor in John Ashbery’s Poetry After Theory

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The aim of this paper is to offer a reading of John Ashbery’s poem “A Wave,” demonstrating that its (ab)use of metaphor will benefit from being analysed in the light of deconstructive literary theory. Roughly, there seems to be a divide between classical and early 20th century literary theory, on the one hand, and later deconstructive theory, on the other, in terms of how these schools have valued metaphor as a poetic figure. Whereas the former has tended to privilege metaphor on the grounds of what Jonathan Culler has termed its “cognitive respectability,” the latter, on the other hand, has suggested a general questioning of its epistemological virtues with reference to its rhetorical aberrancy. If metaphor after the deconstructive turn is to be viewed under the aegis of displacement and trivialization, we might think of it as involving “weak metaphoricity” after the fashion of Gianni Vatimo’s notion of ‘weak metaphysics.’ The main claim of this paper is that a general difficulty of making proper sense of Ashbery’s “A Wave” derives from the overdetermined poor functioning, or abuse of metaphor in the poem – something I shall call its catachretic effect. Thus, Ashbery’s poem could be said to represent a certain Gelassenheit with respect to reaching any hermeneutic telos and granting metaphor any respectable and proper role in this process.

More specifically, I shall suggest that Ashbery indetermines metaphor with a view to calling into question its traditional role of substitution, according to which an improper, figural term takes the place of a proper, literal term. Ashbery’s (ab)use of metaphor rather suggests an insistence on the continual (re)figuration of apparently literal terms, just as it chiasmatically involves the literalization of what may at first seem to be figurative terms. In this way any taken-for-granted distinction between figural and literal terms, between improper and proper terms is done away with, and Ashbery’s poem raises the question to which extent it is composed of any truly proper or improper terms. Indeed, this question is posed in a quite radical manner in the poem, as the reader of “A Wave” cannot ever be sure if its metaphors do not turn out to be just “dead” metaphors, which by definition do not simply replace more proper literal expressions, but function as nonmetaphorical terms themselves. Similarly – or to be more presice – conversely, its metaphors may just as often be read as truly live metaphors, but in such an abstruse and confusing manner that they refuse to be translated into any ordinary terms whatsoever. Consequently, I shall venture the proposition that Ashbery thus introduces into his poem a strong sense of what Brian McHale has called ‘ontological uncertainty’ about its rhetorical status. Either its terms ask to be taken so literally that they cannot be read but as dead metaphors, or they are so really and truly metaphorical that they do not correspond to any literal terms that will translate them. The poem constantly wavers between both these extremes – between verbal transparency and verbal obscurity, between the translatability of words and their untranslatability. For the same reason, the question of how to make sense of Ashbery’s poem remains uncomfortably unsettled, insofar as there is no one way to read its abusive metaphors.

This question is all the more important since a central theme of the poem is the poet speaker’s quest for and questioning of ways to remember and make sense of what seems to be a past love affair. Very early in the poem the poet speaker asks, “Were we making sense?” (69) – thus implying – and at the same time doubling Ashbery’s reader as part of an uncanny mise-en-abyme effect – that the chances of succeeding in his attempt depend to a considerable extent on how much sense the affair between his lover and himself made in the first place. If the reader of Ashbery’s poem may well ask a similar question about its speaker’s attempt to make sense of his amorous past, it is because the terms on which this attempt manifests itself in his discourse are indeterminably suspended between literal and metaphorical expression. More specifically, as I shall show in more analytical detail in my paper, it remains an altogether endless task to unravel the deixis of the poet speaker’s discourse. Its abusive metaphorics keeps the reader of Ashbery’s poem wondering, for example, whether its words refer to the speaker’s world as literal or metaphorical terms for a physical world of objects and living beings, a mental landscape, a textually constructed world of words and signs, or, finally, the idea of a completely other world for which there is no literal expression. The inability to distinguish sharply between what are proper and improper terms in the poem in turn makes it difficult to situate the speaker in any definite world from which his discourse could be said to emanate, and such predicament tends to dislocate his discourse from any fixed enunciatory position. Because his words never reveal to which extent they refer truly metaphorically or truly literally, and often both at once, Ashbery’s reader is inclined to ask.: ‘Is he making sense?’

If no definite answer presents itself to this question, it is all the more significant that this is not a result of a short-circuiting process in which the indetermination of metaphor and of the distinction between literal and metaphorical reference leads to a total absence of meaning. On the contrary, it seems that the plethora of referential possibilities elicited by the unstable position of metaphor in Ashbery’s poem gives rise to a surplus of signification – but one which does not allow itself to be completely exhausted. It is characteristic that at the end of the poem the poet speaker sums up his entire quest for the meaning of his past love affair as he remembers it by stating that “all was strange” (89). Whether this statement refers to his past or to his discourse about depends very much on how it is read, but it could also be said to work as an implied meta-poetic gloss on the language of the poem as a whole. Ashbery employs a vocabulary whose status might be characterized as one of estrangement insofar as its seemingly ordinary literal expressions harbour within themselves their own opposite, i.e., the possibility that they should rather be seen as metaphors, and vice versa. If “A Wave” thus insists on no propriety and no properties inherent in its language, it is indeed a language that has no settled status or position. Its very estrangement from itself suggests that it has no proper terms – whether literal or metaphorical, and such a status very much leaves it open to, though at the same time impossible for the reader of the poem to decide what are the proper and improper terms, the literal and metaphorical terms of “A Wave.” What sense the poem makes in turn is very much contingent upon how the reader relates to this predicament.

In order to propose how Ashbery’s poem to a large extent benefits from being read in a deconstructive light, this paper will offer a discussion of the reconfiguring that metaphor has undergone in deconstructive theory. Important to this discussion will be the implications that deconstruction has had for the status of metaphor in poetic discourse, which – as already mentioned – involve its displacement, trivialization, and weakening. In classical theories of metaphor its status depended to a large degree on its subordination to the existence of a literal term into which it was translatable. Especially Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida have questioned this hierarchy. In his seminal essay “White Mythology” Derrida has challenged this idea, for example, by suggesting that there is no proper translation of metaphor into literal terms – especially since the very concepts used to translate metaphor are themselves constructed out of metaphors. Similarly, Paul de Man has pointed out in his essay “Semiology and Rhetoric” that the resemblance and substitutive relationship that metaphor claims to exist between its figural and its literal term has no essence, but is merely based on a contingent association. Both Derrida and de Man are useful in a reading of Ashbery’s “A Wave,” as they refuse grant metaphor the status as a privileged rhetorical means to reach clarification of meaning in philosophical as well as literary discourse.
Original languageEnglish
Publication date2004
Number of pages6
Publication statusPublished - 2004
EventESSE - Universidad Zaragoza, Zaragoza, Spain
Duration: 8 Sep 200412 Sep 2004
Conference number: 7


LocationUniversidad Zaragoza

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