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Jonathan Culler's Talk - Encounters with the Lyric Form

Published on 
December 01, 2022


You can watch the recording here.

Or read the transcript of the talk:


This Room: Pronouns and Lyric Subjectivity

I have long been interested in lyric pronouns, and especially second person pronouns, as in lyric address.  The apostrophic address to impossible listeners, --"Hail to thee, blithe spirit!”  or “Thou still unravished bride of quietness!” --  whether birds, urns, clouds, the dead, or aspects of the self  (“O my soul”)  apostrophic address seems a verbal technique that marks discourse as poetic, and typically works to characterize the lyric subject or speaker as a vatic poet, who calls upon objects, creatures, natural forces, or abstractions to listen, to act, to refrain from acting.  But also important is the address to a human “you”, who may be the beloved or the reader or an instance of self-address, or simply a pronoun marking a general class that can include reader, poet, and others in general (a you that seems to mean one). 

Today I focus on a poem by John Ashbery, a poet notorious for his “floating pronouns.” (Costello The Plural of Us, p. 214).   Already in 1982, Bonnie Costello wrote that

“An unidentified ‘you’ inhabits the pages of Ashbery’s work, especially in the seventies, and critics have speculated variously on the role and nature of this ubiquitous, amorphous ‘other,’ suggesting that the ‘you’ serves as a reimagined self, an erotic partner, a syntactic counterword.  It serves, of course, all these functions; its importance lies in its ambiguity…. we find that Ashbery’s poetry is not only fictively addressed to another, but that at least one very concrete reification of ‘you’ is the actual reader” (494-5.)


His 2000 collection, Your Name Here, whose title foregrounds both the second person and the problem of singularization and iterability that seems central to lyric, is certainly continuous with that early practice of the floating you, though John Vincent calls this collection “a watershed moment in Ashbery’s experiments with the second person. And with intimacy effects in general,” in that here, he writes, “The ‘you’ often cannot be the reader” (John Ashbery and You. 145, 151).  The collection is dedicated to Ashbery’s partner, Pierre Martory, who died two years earlier, and the possibility of you designating Martory is always lurking in the poems, though the title of the collection would seem to evoke rather the worlds of advertising and bureaucracy and the possibility for any reader to feel anonymously interpellated, urged to fill in your name here.[i]

But thinking about you seems to lead, especially in Ashbery, to thinking about subjectivity. In a 1972 interview in the New York Quarterly, Janet Bloom and Robert Losada, ask: 

Would you describe the ways in which you see the personal pronouns, especially the word “you”?  

And Ashbery answers:

“The personal pronouns in my work very often seem to be like variables in an equation. ‘You’ can be myself or it can mean another person, someone whom I’m addressing and so can ‘he’ and ‘she’ for that matter and ‘we’; sometimes one has to deduce from the rest of the sentence what is being meant and my point is also that it doesn’t matter very much, that we are somehow all aspects of a consciousness giving rise to the poem and the fact addressing someone, myself or someone else, is what’s the important thing rather than the particular person involved. I guess I don’t have a very strong sense of my own identity and I find it very easy to move from one person in the sense of a pronoun to another…. “ (Packard 123-4).[1]   

I think that the notion that “we are somehow all aspects of a consciousness giving rise to the poem” is very helpful for thinking about Ashbery and the appeal his poetry has, despite its obscurity.

Here is “This Room

 This Room  

The room I entered was a dream of this room.

Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine.

The oval portrait

of a dog was me at an early age.

Something shimmers, something is hushed up.


We had macaroni for lunch every day

except Sunday, when a small quail was induced

to be served to us. Why do I tell you these things?

You are not even here.


Despite the wonderful ending, which I will come back to in a moment, this poem, more than most poems by Ashbery, seems, with the pronouns, I, mine, me, We and us, to focus on a lyric subject, an “I” holding center stage; but prior to the ending which shifts to “you,” we are given a series of puzzling assertions that are quite difficult to bring together into the kind of perspective that would characteristically solidify a lyric “I,” though they are certainly engaging and even funny.  As the poem says, something shimmers, something is hushed up; the assertions shimmer mysteriously but are not to be elucidated, perhaps because any private dimension has been silenced, poetically transformed.  To run through them briefly:  what room does the deictic adjective of this room indicate? the room where the poem is being written? the room where it is being read? the poem as room (stanza)? or the room of the action of a lyric speaker in the present? This uncertainty about this room makes it hard to understand how the room I entered at some time in the past was a dream of this room, except insofar as the space of the poem in general seems dreamlike. Then, what might seem like a memory of sitting with his feet on the sofa is made intriguing by the plural of “all those feet” which, along with “surely,” imparts an unsettling character to a banal memory;  then we have the curious phrasing, full of potential literary allusions, of what might be a claim that a boy’s identity was tied up with a dog.[ii] And finally, the apparently prosaic memory of macaroni for lunch is rendered surreal by the idea of a quail being induced to be served to us every Sunday, which for me becomes the punctum of the poem, to use Roland Barthes’ term for what grabs and holds my attention. I hear, lying behind the quail persuaded to be served, the partridges of Ben Jonson’s country house poem, "To Penshurst":

The painted partridge lies in every field, 

And for thy mess is willing to be killed. [iii]

There are also other game that don’t even have to be induced but volunteer for the table: “Fat agéd carps that run into thy net” and “Bright eels …  leap on land 

Before the fisher, or into his hand.”

If Ashbery’s quail induced to be served is a hyperbolically joking version of Jonson’s partridge, such a connection may certainly please the reader who makes it and may at one level count as an explanation of this strange, amusing formulation, but still, as so often in Ashbery, identification of a possible allusion doesn’t help the line make sense as part of the poem or help flesh out a speaking subject. It is not an index of the experience or memories of the lyric subject, but only a mark of the poetic memory of the poet.  I think the oval portrait works in a similar way: this portrait may recall Dylan Thomas’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog,” Poe’s short story “The Oval Portrait,”  or the portraits by William Wegman of dogs as people, the cliché of identity tied up with the childhood pet, or the commonplace that after a certain time master and dog come to resemble one another, but these verbal echoes would seem to point not towards the memories of youth but to the experience of the a writer in the mode of composition, the literary palimpsest and perhaps general consciousness from which the poem is woven.

In an essay entitled “Ashbery’s Power and the Phantom ‘I,’” Laura Quinney argues that while the taste of subjectivity (a telling phrase) gives Ashbery’s obscure poems much of their appeal for readers, “the ‘I’ remains phantasmal in two senses: first, it brings no robust sense of self within the poem –no empirical location or identity – and second, within the poem it comes and goes lightly and, it seems, capriciously.” (352).  She goes on to claim that Ashbery conveys better than any other poet that “it is through exposure to the fragility of selfhood that we experience or, in Kierkegaard’s term, ‘deepen’ our subjectivity” (361). If these poems give us a sense of what it is like to be a subject, it is not because they retail the intimate experience of a given individual but because they offer a shimmering of singularities, or the experience of the experience of consciousness in general but in all its quirkiness, including the consciousness of the poetic craftsman, as opposed to a character whose experience is being explored.

But one reason I am particularly intrigued by this poem is, as I said, that it connects the problem of singularization and iterability with the striking deictic effects of lyric --this room, this stanza -- where the you, as in this poem, remains unlocated. Here the structure of lyric returns the recital of possible memories or past events to a present of discourse, but Ashbery’s poem is unusual both in the explicitness with which it foregrounds the relation of lyric address -- “Why do I tell you these things? You are not even here” -- and in its hyperbolic versions of the strangeness that lyric here treats as natural, as in “the oval portrait of a dog was me at an early age.”

Whereas John Vincent plausibly singles out Your Name Here among Ashbery’s collection as containing more details that could be considered the poet’s personal memories, as well as moments of intimacy with the reader, the poems still seem a far cry from the notion of lyric as intense expression of personal experience. Even if one thinks one has learned that young Ashbery often put his feet on the sofa, one is scarcely ready to conclude that as a boy he had macaroni for lunch every day except Sunday. But I do agree with Laura Quinney that these poems give us a taste of subjectivity.  In a 1981 interview, Ashbery remarks that

“What I am trying to get at is a general, all-purpose experience – like those stretch socks that fit all sizes. Something which a reader could dip into without knowing anything about me, my history, or sex life, or whatever…. I am hoping that someday people will see it this way, as trying to be the openest possible form, something in which anyone can see reflected his own private experiences without them having to be defined or set up for him.”[iv] And elsewhere he remarks that apparently autobiographical details “were just to be forms of autobiography rather than special elements that applied to my own life.” (Packard, 123).[2]


But let me, in concluding, return to you.  The poem’s conclusion “Why do I tell you these things? You are not even here” is exemplary, with its joking yet ultimately serious foregrounding of the structure of song and ode, as well as the tradition of the love sonnet.  The final line could, I think, be taken to sum up the tradition of the lover's complaint, implicitly commenting, as poems so often do, on the lyric tradition as they perform it.

 In Overheard Voices: Address and Subjectivity in Postmodern American Poetry, Ann Keniston, writes,

 “A focus on lyric address illuminates the nature of lyric subjectivity: the attitude of speaking to an absent other allows the postmodern lyric subject to be defined at least partly by the yearning to unmake an isolation fundamental to lyric, which cannot, in the end, be unmade.”[v]


Perhaps not, -- we are not even here, yet we are here. The term “isolation” makes it sound as though each of us is an isolated subject, a monad, but I think that if poems like Ashbery’s have anything to teach us it is that, as he said in the interview I quoted earlier, “we are somehow all aspects of a consciousness giving rise to the poem;” subjectivities are dispersed among the discourses that constitute us.  I think one could even say that studying lyric helps us answer this question: “Why do I tell you these things? You are not even here.” whoever you might be.  





[1] “Craft interview with JA,” in The Craft of Poetry: Interviews from the New York Quarterly, ed. William Packard,  Doubleday,1974, 111-132

[2] “Craft interview with JA,” in The Craft of Poetry: Interviews from the New York Quarterly, ed. William Packard,  Doubleday,1974, 111-132


[i] [The final poem in the collection, which also bears the title “Your Name Here,” avoids “you,” except in a couple of quotations without a source, until the final lines, which initially seem to address the self, [SLIDE] for the poem began “But how can I be in the bar and also be a recluse?” and then concludes,

Now is the time for you to go out into the light

and congratulate whoever is left in our city. People who survived

the eclipse.


But then in the last two lines the pronoun you floats away from the I of the opening to become one or more others:

But I was totally taken with you, always have been.

Light a candle in my wreath, I’ll be yours forever and will kiss you. (127)

Vincent claims that these final two lines “turn the poet’s attention and pronominal antecedent back to the reader quite showily,” perhaps because they seem to echo Whitman’s over-the-top conclusion to Leaves of Grass, “So Long,” where “I advance personally solely to you,” and “I spring from the pages into your arms…”[i]   But Vincent maintains that here “The poet, who might be speaking at this point to Martory and the reader, asserts that the ‘you’ from earlier books will be back and that the reader can expect a future of greater intimacy now that the poet and his beloved have weathered ‘the eclipse.’” (158)  Well, maybe.  This is certainly a showy ending. But to say that it asserts that the you of earlier books will be back and offers the reader a future of greater intimacy sounds like wishful reading indeed, and whether it is the reader or Martory or both who will be kissed seems very much up in the air.  As is also the case in the poem I want to concentrate on, the opening poem of the book, “This Room.”

[ii] As so often with Ashbery, we are induced to cast around for points of reference among literary or non-literary discourses: this portrait recalls Dylan Thomas’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog,” Poe’s short story “The Oval Portrait,”  or the portraits by William Wegman of dogs as people, the cliché of identity tied up with the childhood pet, or the commonplace that after a certain time master and dog come to resemble one another.  ]


[iii] The poem continues:

And if the high-swoll'n Medway fail thy dish, 

Thou hast thy ponds, that pay thee tribute fish, 

Fat agéd carps that run into thy net. 

And pikes, now weary their own kind to eat, 

As loath the second draught or cast to stay, 

Officiously at first themselves betray; 

Bright eels that emulate them, and leap on land 

Before the fisher, or into his hand.    ll. 29-38, published 1616.



[iv] A Poulin, “The Experience of Experience: A Conversation with John Ashbery,” Michigan quarterly review 20, 1981, 251. [242-255].  Permalink:


[v] Ann Keniston, Overheard Voices: Address and Subjectivity in Postmodern American Poetry, Routledge, 2006.  121