[from John Ashbery's Three Poems, Viking, 1970]
The New Spirit [excerpt]
. . . This possibility of fulfillment creates the appetite for itself, with the result that the dislocations come through to us as romantic episodes or chapters; "There's the one in which I fell away gradually, without even realizing it until we were already far apart, separated by new habits and preoccupations that had arisen even as we sat close to each other, talking about the weather and so on." To have the whole outline in mind yet not notice the individual changes as they occur, and then one day it dawns on you that you are the change, so naturally you could have seen it coming. A subtle corrosion has taken over this branching out, on a higher plane because the totality of its gradations had been breathed into the start, yet sinking deeper than that other that is cast aside because, whatever you might say of it, in the pattern of base voluptuousness it was perfect, a luminary, and things that are perfect of their kind are better than the flawed, interrupted spiral of that other narration whose purpose was to instruct and entertain, but which succeeded in doing neither because it was too turned in upon itself, and therefore suffered a shameful destiny, a chariot going down kicking and struggling at the first brush with the sun's deleterious rays. Quick thinking on your part saved us from such a melodramatic end, though: you merely restored the dimension of the exploratory dialogue, conducted in the general interest, and we resumed our roles of progressive thinkers and builders of the art of love. Not that such a thing could exist, or if it did it would certainly not be anything like an art, which can only exist by coming up into existence, and then the rules may be drawn up, though it makes very little difference since no one will ever play that game again. It lay there in our already clouded vision as we looked at each other, some dark beginning force that made it clear that the time for action was past and the time for making speeches had come. So, somewhat stimulated at the idea of not turning back but going forward, making virtue of necessity, no doubt, we proceeded to actually examine what there was left for us. Not really, of course, but we could feel it as one feels the temperature dropping even though one senses only separate instances and not the movement of the fall. It was waiting for us: the sense that we must now put our ideas together and use them as steps for attaining some kind of rational beauty within the limits of possibility, that would not offend everyday experience, even of the coarsest or most monotonous kind. A prison, in sum, but disguised as a school, built on the false premise of education, that the boredom now would necessarily result in some ultimate note of improvement, though nothing resembling that magnificent but empty structure we had started to build incorrectly and had even begun to get used to despite it having remained largely at the blueprint stage. This was hell or worse, since there was no disproportion, no juxtapositions to distract, nothing but the day-to-day growth without change, no kind of manner in the sullen sunlight that trickled in, illuminating everything equally: a moral universe which the present had transcended but which was able to reassert its authority during the confusion that followed on its inevitable downfall and had now emerger stronger than before: strong as iron. In the very act of contemplating such a state of affairs prior to rejecting it one is caught up on the wheel, there is no alternative, and one finds oneself liking oneself and whatever it is quite as much as ever, more in fact now that a sure sense of purpose implements the drive into a definite thingness, virtue still from necessity, mother of invention, but its own reward. Remains of the old atrocity subsist, but they are converted into ingenious shifts in scenery, a sort of "English garden" effect, to give the required air of naturalness, pathos and hope. . . .
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