Thursday, June 27, 2013
Writing on the Margins - Pasternak/Ashbery Part I
Marginalia occupies a place in literature which we might characterize as . . . well . . . marginal. It obviously can't be considered original composition, since it exists only as running commentary upon a pre-existing text. Perhaps the most famous marginalizer (or marginalianist? - or marginal author???) in the history of literature is Samuel Taylor Coleridge, five volumes of whose marginalia have been published. Doubtless many other famous writers have written in their books, and the literary archives of many famous authors contain copies of books from their personal libraries, in which they have made various annotations. Influence--as a kind of literary tracing of effect--is best exampled through the use of antecedents, known to have exerted magnetic pull or push on other (often later) writers.
We don't think of marginalia as important, usually, because we don't regard it as original work, since by its very nature, it's parasitic, or symbiotic, like barnacles on the hull of a ship, or sucker-fish clinging to the flanks of a big shark. We tend to think of marginalia as having a kind of dependent existence upon an original body of work, though contemporary theories about new kinds of writing, generated through cooperative or collaborative means, may be challenging that old presumption. Reading recently some of the letters of James Salter, I was struck by the amount of revision his editors subjected him to. Readers seldom give much thought to it, but it's a fact that many of the most famous works of fiction in the 20th Century, were in effect collaborative efforts involving one or more editors, agents, legal copyreaders, in addition to the named authors. Thomas Wolfe's work would probably not have been publishable, without the heavy editorial involvement of Scribner's Maxwell Perkins.
One of the techniques of writing which post-Modern literature offers is the combination of texts from varying sources, appropriating fragments or shards of pre-existing texts directly into a new work. This kind of borrowing is different from plagiarism, or direct quotation (whether acknowledged or not). The source text (or parent work) isn't pirated to lend authority or content or style to a new work--but to include it in a kind of collage or sculpted assemblage, or as a discrete "specimen" of some kind. The debt one writer owes to another for this kind of literary theft or borrowing isn't usually great, though it may swing both ways, either as a bonafide salute, or as an implied censure or parody.
Writers typically are inspired by writing that has moved them. Writers are always on the hunt for new sources of inspiration, and though it may take non-literary forms, such inspiration frequently originates in pre-existing texts--and often in the most unlikely places!
Some years back, at a library book sale, I came across a copy of a book that had belonged to a well-known contemporary poet. The other book-scout who was present that day, to whom I showed the book, wise-cracked "so who is John Ashbery?" since the average person at a suburban library book sale would be about as likely to know who John Ashbery is as to know mean temperature of Bombay. The book I had found was a copy of Selected Writings, by Boris Pasternak, issued by James Laughlin as Direction 9 in his Direction series of texts from New Directions Publishing Company of Norfolk, Connecticut.
This particular copy, a worn light grey textured paper-covered hardbound copy, had no dustwrapper, but it bore the following on the front free endpaper:
and at the bottom of the leaf was
On the pages indicated, and on other pages of the text of the book, were lined passages in the same ink as the front inscription. Consulting the official facts of John Ashbery's biography, you'd discover that 1949 was the year he graduated from Harvard with a bachelor's degree in English (cum laude). It would be four years before his first small collection of poems was published (Turandot, New York: Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 1953) and seven years before his first regularly issued trade book (Some Trees, New Haven: Yale Younger Poets, 1956). The young Ashbery was just beginning graduate school at this point, and though he may have had great expectations, it was far too early to tell what his prospects might be in the field of creative literature.
In retrospect, we can observe that Pasternak, in many ways had already come to be regarded as one of the great 20th Century poets, and had come to symbolize the tragic suppression of artistic endeavor under the Soviet System. The world knew nothing of his novel Doctor Zhivago, the panoramic narrative spanning the beginning of the Revolution and early years of the Soviet Republic, which he had been intermittently working on for decades, and which would eventually be published in 1956, the same year as Ashbery's Yale book.
The accidental nature of my finding this stray item from Ashbery's library--(did he dispose of it somewhere along the way, lend it to someone, or simply lose track of it?--and how did it find its way across to the West Coast?)--had the same sort of crucial randomness that you might expect in very abstract meta-fictions (or in certain kinds of post-Modern poems). Apparent randomness and inclusiveness are two aspects of Ashbery's compositional approach to writing which flowered in his early work: The collage (montage, decoupage) methodology in many of the poems of Tennis Court Oath (Wesleyan, 1962). In researching Ashbery's work in connection with this post, I came across passages in David Herd's John Ashbery and American Poetry (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), in which he discusses in some detail Pasternak's influence on Ashbery, O'Hara and Koch, specifically, in Ashbery's case, with his focus on the practice of metonymy in Pasternak's verse, and the use of contextualized description as a method of portraying character. In O'Hara's case, this is perceived as the focus on the immediacy of self and social milieu, whereas in Ashbery, it is expressed through the absorption (what Herd prefers to call "sponge"-like from the poem "A Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers" from Some Trees) of external influences and circumstances--i.e., defining presence and immediacy through the use or accommodation of impinging data. Ashbery's use of details and surfaces superficially irrelevant to the argument or narrative of a work in hand, has always been a defining aspect of his writing, one which has given rise to many misapprehensions about the meaning and purpose of his poetry. From the point of view of early Soviet aesthetic theories about creativity, the immediacy of one's personal, social, political and artistic milieu as inescapable realities, must be incorporated into the flow of the work; thus there is no denying the priorities of the historical moment in which one is given to participate.
Pasternak's problem inside the socialist realism of the Stalinist (and post-Stalinist) periods, was his apparent emphasis on the personal fates of individual souls, which is why Doctor Zhivago met such an intense backlash in the Soviet Union when it was first published. Though Zhivago is a story about people in a specific setting, it is also in many senses an inquiry into the Communist revolution, and of the vicissitudes of living through a time of convulsive change. It is also, in many ways, a spiritual autobiography whose outline bears significant comparisons to Pasternak's own life. In searching for new models to put up against the prevailing new confessionalism and self-justifying psycho-drama of Lowell, Jarrell, and Berryman throughout the 1950s, the young poets of the New York School sought formal pathways which could liberate them, and provide new sources of energy and inspiration.
Herd specifically mentions Ashbery's encounter with prose work Safe Conduct, which is reprinted in its entirety in the Selected Writings book in hand. In it, Pasternak confronts directly the difficulties and frustrations of the beginning of severe censorship and persecutions of the early Stalinist period. Ashbery himself reminded critics and readers, in his Charles Eliot Norton Lectures (As Other Traditions, 2000), that Pasternak was an important early influence, serving both as a possible model for the kind of writing he was drawn to, as well as immediate inspiration to composition.
In the context of this important link, it's intriguing to explore Ashbery's copy of the Pasternak writings, to see what it might provide in the way of clues to the exact nature of its influence on his work. The gentlest thing I might do would be to begin with a rough outline of Safe Conduct, but I'm not going to do that, preferring instead simply to inspect the marked passages of Ashbery's copy, and speculate casually about their connection to his work.