Happy eighty-eighth to John Ashbery. Many of his poems from the Review are available online, but I wanted to share a meditative passage on film from “The System,” a long prose poem published as fiction in our Spring 1972 issue.
In 1971, Ashbery read from “The System” at St. Mark’s Church, in New York. Someone captured his prefatory remarks on tape, and they’re pretty illuminating in suggesting an approach to the poem:
Oh. I don’t think I have the last page of it with me. Well, it doesn’t really matter, actually. I don’t … I do like the way it ends, but it’s kind of an environmental work, if I may be so bold. If you sort of feel like leaving at any point, it won’t really matter. You will have had the experience. You’re only supposed to get out of it what you actually get out of it. You’re not supposed to really take it all in … you know, think about other things. I am disturbed that it’s incomplete, but maybe that’s good.
You can read the whole thing in Issue 53.
Movies show us ourselves as we had not yet learned to recognize us—something in the nature of daily being or happening that quickly gets folded over into ancient history like yesterday’s newspaper, but in so doing a new face has been revealed, a surface on which a new phrase may be written before it rejoins history, or it may remain blank and do so anyway: it doesn’t matter because each thing is coming up in its time and receding into the past, and this is what we all expect and want. What does matter is what becomes of it once it has entered the past’s sacred precincts; when, bending under the weight of an all-powerful nostalgia, its every contour is at last revealed for what it was, but this can be known only in the past. It isn’t wrong to look at things in this way—how else could we live in the present knowing it was the present except in the context of the important things that have already happened? No, one must treasure each moment of the past, get the same thrill from it that one gets from watching each moment of an old movie. These windows on the past enable us to see enough to say on an even keel in the razor’s-edge present which is really a no-time, continually straying over the border into the positive past and the negative future whose movements alone define it. Unfortunately we have to live in it. We are appalled at this. Because its no-time, no-space dimensions offer us no signposts, nothing to be guided by. In this dimensionless area a single step can be leagues or inches; the flame of a match can seem like an explosion on the sun or it can make no dent in the matte-grey, uniform night. The jolting and loss of gravity produce a permanent condition of nausea, always buzzing faintly at the blurred edge where life is hinged to the future and to the past. But only focus on the past through the clear movie-theater dark and you are a changed person, and can begin to live again. That is why we, snatched from sudden freedom, are able to communicate only through this celluloid vehicle that has immortalized and given a definitive shape to our formless gestures; we can live as though we have caught up with time and avoid the sickness of the present, a shapeless blur as meaningless as a carelessly exposed roll of film. There is hardness and density now, and our story takes on the clear, compact shape of the plot of a novel, with all its edges and inner passages laid bare for the reader, to be resumed and resumed over and over, that is taken up and put aside and taken up again.