Sample close reading

ENGL 349: Modern Poetry in English

Below is an example of an “explication” of John Ashbery’s short poem “Some Trees,” which I wrote for an assignment not unlike the one you have to write for ENGL 349. Notice that it has an overall argument, but not exactly a thesis. (Also, here is a link to an excellent close-reading from a student in my ENGL 341: Modern Fiction class last fall; obviously, it’s dealing with prose narrative instead of poetry, but many of its procedures are exemplary of close-reading in general.)

A caveat: this is not a perfect model for the close-reading assignment. Why? (1) it’s too long; (2) its style is, if I say so myself, pretentious–by which I mean that it goes for flourishes at the expense of the clarity and simplicity of good critical writing; (3) it should do more to explain and develop its claims about form and logic–that is, it should spell out not only what those claims are but also take more time to show how I came up with them, using the text of the poem; and (4) it was written for a graduate course, not a 3rd-year undergraduate course like ours, so the audience and expectations would have been different than those that apply to your assignment.

So why use it as a sample? Well, I think it does model some things well: (1) it is solidly rooted in the poem’s text; (2) it quotes the poem not for the sake of quoting or for proving that the text says what was already paragraph, but rather to back up or illustrate its claims; (3) its formatting for references, quotations, etc., is consistent and correct; and (4) it avoids generalization and, for the most part, impressionistic explanations of how some hypothetical reader (“the reader”) feels about the poem.

An Explication of John Ashbery’s “Some Trees”

Daniel Aureliano Newman © 2009

Like the poetry of Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery’s “Some Trees” (1956) explores the littoral zone between the external world and our perceptions of it. The poem oscillates between empiricism and idealism, asking where it is that meaning lies. Do we project meaning onto trees, or do they mean inherently? The question is never settled; formally and logically the poem keeps it circulating. Readers may favour one answer over the other, but they will never recruit the poem in its entirely to their solution. When one part is pinned down, another comes unmoored. The result, like the trees themselves, is doubly “amazing” (1): it’s “wonderful” but also “bewilder[ing], perplex[ing]” (OED “amaze”). “Some Trees” insists on shinning “a puzzling light” (18) on all it seems to clarify.

At first the speaker seems confident in interpreting trees as embodiments of human relationship. This must be the metaphorical heart of the poem. Trees mingle, “each / joining a neighbor, as though speech / was a still performance” (1–3), inviting the straightforward parallel: trees touching the way people do. (Here touch may be taken literally as contact between lovers or figuratively as any form of reaching toward another person. The manner is less relevant in this case than the fact of connection itself.) Arboreal melding thus offers a model for personal relations. What a comforting thought: the possibility of truly reaching others, of people being not necessarily alone but able to “touch, love, explain” (12) each other. But the analogy is too neat. Scepticism soon butts in with the wistful qualifier “as though” (2). “Arranging by chance” (4) is more troubling still. It hangs unfinished over the edge of the first stanza break, creating a brief equivoque—enough to make us think the speaker has recanted and now sees the trees as meaningless (4). After three convoluted lines that defer the revelation of the grammatical subject, we find that it’s “you and I” (7), and not the trees, who make pattern (“arrang[ement]”) out of “chance.” Still, despite the eventual grammatical resolution, the stanza break ensures the tenacity of the ambiguity. What, then, do trees mean for the speaker? There may be something inherently meaningful to their joining; alternatively he merely sees pattern where there isn’t one. If this is the case, what does it suggest for the human bond, the metaphorical tenor now bereft of meaningful vehicle? Rather than decide, the poem holds these questions in suspension. More accurately, it provides evidence enough to support both alternatives, but not enough to reject either. Nor can it quite endorse both alternatives simultaneously. What we have here is a Necker-Cube poem.

The poem denies any simplistic correlation between trees and human interpreters of trees. This denial is emphasized by a persistent conflict between form and logic. The first stanza break, as we have seen, decouples syntactical and prosodic meanings. As the poem progresses, moreover, what began as an almost traditional use of meter and rhyme degenerates in ways that obscure and confuse. Syntax grows tortured and rhyme poorer. Rich rhymes (each/speech; I/try) yield to near rhymes (performance/chance; morning/agreeing), then to slant rhymes (are/there; soon/explain), and finally to near rhymelessness (noises/emerges). The roles rhyme plays in signification are far from obvious or universal, but a poem whose use of rhyme changes so evidently must be asking to be read as if other qualities were changing too. Rhyming structure promises formal continuity; as that promise is gradually broken, associated expectations (e.g., of consistent logic or perspective) also devolve.

Logic offers little help, not least because the poem seems to parody logical arguments. How should one make sense of the following? A colon, which might announce a proof, separates the premise “you and I / are suddenly what the trees try / to tell us we are” (8–9) from the proposition “that their merely being there / means something” (10–11). But what does the premise have to do with the proposition? The colon implies a grammatical and logical relation that is challenged if not contradicted by the shift from “us” (“you and I”) to “their” (i.e., the trees’). This is not to say the lines are senseless; indeed, they make the trees interact with the speaker and “you” in ways that complement the earlier metaphorical link between speaker and tree. Yet their sense is fuzzy, more suggestive than denotative. No paraphrase could ever distil their meaning.

Another difficulty lies in the twisted locution

Arranging by chance

To meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it             (4–7)

This would be a good aphoristic microcosm of the whole poem if it had the pithiness, wit, and eloquence of an aphorism. But I would argue that its convolution and awkwardness are strategic, generating ambiguity and multivalence instead of epigrammatic cuteness. In one reading, the speaker and “you” agree to engage with the real world through their dream of the real world. In another, they’re so absorbed by idealism, so “far from the world,” that they come out on the other side, in the real; this particular reading is hard to prove, however. Or, in yet another reading, they’re so far from the real that only their fantasy is real; this possibility reeks of a solipsism hard to reconcile with the particularity of “some” trees.

The first reading is, I think, more in the spirit of the poem, and more humane. It reiterates the poem’s central paradox. On one hand, the speaker knows he and “you” haven’t created the beautiful trees, did not “invent / such comeliness” (13–14). Furthermore they “are surrounded” (14): what they are surrounded by is less important than the fact that something other than themselves is outside them. They do not surround themselves in the active voice; they passively allow another agent to surround them. Idealism and its extreme form, solipsism, are inadequate modes for thinking about trees. On the other hand, the speaker knows the trees’ beauty is not real, in the sense that it exists only in human perception. The trees are thus “a silence” and “a canvas” which “you and I” have “already filled with noises” and image (15, 16, 7, 15). Naïve empiricism and the attendant danger of literalism are also inadequate. The trees’ meaning is not fully imposed on them by the observer, and not fully immanent in them.

The speaker looks at or thinks about trees, and builds for himself and for “you” an elaborate metaphor. What are the trees doing, meanwhile? Not much; they are. Why do they make “you and I /… what the trees try / to tell us we are” (7–9)? Because “their merely being there / means something” (10–11). This answer, prosaic and abstract if taken literally, does not satisfy. A closer look reveals a more profound and ethically-responsible view. The trees merely are, but, by merely being, avail themselves to meaning. Some might find this a colonizing act by the human, and it may well be. But the alternative—i.e., trees merely are, therefore mean nothing, therefore merit no more consideration than abstract things—is bleak and, from a literary-critical perspective, a cop-out. The trees are not inherently meaningful; nor are they passive receptacles of meaning. They “seem their own defense” (20, my italics), and “to seem” here reads more like an action than a state of being: being perceived, the trees grow meaningful.

The final couplet, “our days put on such reticence / these accents seem their own defense” (19–20), warrants a tentative conclusion–partly because the return of rhyme suggests conclusiveness. Here Reverend James Tait’s Mind in Matter (1892) offers an unlikely but helpful insight into Ashbery. “Divine wisdom,” Tait writes, “betrays itself by reticence about the unseen world” (OED “reticence”). Not revealing too much is the most revealing act. Ashbery’s trees, “merely being there” (10), say and do nothing (they are “a still performance” [3]), and yet this reticence is “a silence already filled with noises” (15). They are a silent medium for sound (meaning) to travel in. “Accen[t]” must refer to “[s]omething that emphasizes or highlights (esp. by contrast)”(OED “accent”). If so, it’s wrong to read the tree/personal-relations metaphor as a correlation; the tenor (personal relations) is not literally illuminated by the vehicle (the trees’ intermingling). Instead, the two shed little glimmers on each other, evoking correspondences without falling into ratiocination. Reticence is of course necessary for such evocations; saying too much about the trees and their human counterparts would strain the metaphor beyond its capacity to amaze.

What are these “amazing” trees? Throughout the poem they are nameless. Are they maples? elms? We never learn, and they thus remain abstract, almost merely symbolic. And yet the trees, though nameless, are not just any trees: they are “some trees” rather than other trees, and as such eke out some concrete reality. They are also remarkable: those are some trees! But Ashbery is reticent, and so meaning betrays itself by being reticent about where meaning lies.

Works cited

Ashbery, John. “Some Trees.” Collected Poems 1956–1987. New York: Library of America, 2008. 26.

“amaze, v. 2” and “amazing, ppl. a. 2.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. Oxford UP. 18 Mar. 2009. and -50006852.

“reticence n.The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. Oxford UP. 18 Mar. 2009.

“accent, n. 9b.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. Oxford UP. 18 Mar. 2009.

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