The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 856

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The opening of John Ashbery’s “Rivers and Mountains” (“On the secret map the assassins/ Cloistered,”) very well might cause the apprehensive reader to declare, “The map is not the territory.” Indeed, that is part of the point, and the reader attempting to comprehend “Rivers and Mountains” from the preconception that it will be either a coherent whole or a representation equivalent solely to the sum of its parts will find the work daunting, if not ultimately frustrating.

“Rivers and Mountains,” without self-promotion or celebration, presents a subtle, nuanced perspective on the human consequences of war, both victory and defeat. As the opening image develops, the reader is reminded that this is a poem. Even as the assassins cloister in “the city/ Of humiliation and defeat,” Ashbery defines the material used to create the work: “wan ending/ Of the trail among dry, papery leaves” almost lacks subtlety, the dual meaning of “leaves” having been emphasized by the early “Gray-brown quills.”

These lines appear initially not to be so much making something as searching for profundity. While a lesser poet might have presented a less ostentatious phrasing, expecting to be praised for subtlety, Ashbery rises to his self-wrought challenge, merging poem and subject into a territory that maps poem-writing to map-reading: “like thoughts/ In the melodious but vast mass of today’s/ Writing fields and swamps.”

The first verse is notable for its lack of human activity: Even the “rioters”—ostensibly but not definitively human—have been “quelled.” Ashbery develops the aura of devastation more from musical imagery than direct description of the landscape. The phrases “Deaf consolation of minor tunes” and “Singing on marble factory walls” evoke sadness or despair even more clearly than “fields and swamps” as “little bunches of weeds.” Ashbery uses musical referents to transform the territory into a representation of the map, even as the references to writing tools cause the description of the landscape and the creation of the poem to converge.

Also emphasizing the desolation, while also foreshadowing possibilities of resurrection, is the motif of sleep. Beginning as “dull sleep,” the area becomes moderately more active as the rioters are “turned out of sleep in the piece of prisons,” and the area finally reaches the relatively active “quiet walking.” The sleep imagery may not signal a new day, but it certainly promises one.

The closest the first verse comes to a direct observation of destruction is the shortest sentence in the poem: “The bird flew over and/ Sat—there was nothing else to do.” Yet even the apparent naturalness of this image is gradually transformed from the pastoral bird into a powerful waterfall and finally to people, “some with places to go.” At the end of the verse, the waterfall is making a “light print” on the stones. The assassins may have started the verse cloistered, but their landscape has been edited, the mountains transformed by the river—and the poet.

The second verse—a single sentence—continues juxtaposing map, territory, and poem but offers more hope. The musical imagery transitions from “minor tunes” to “a melody heard/ As though through trees,” the line break serving to emphasize the life of the area. The phrase “The land/ Was made of paper processed/ To look like ferns, mud or other” continues the conflation of map and territory, while the second line’s emphasis upon the human concept of “process” indicates the possibility of restoration. The evidence of humanity, though, resembles that found at an archeological excavation. Ashbery elides “homes/ Flung far out,” “public/ Places for electric light,” a “major tax assessment area,” and “formal traffic” throughout the verse. There is no activity showing that people are living there; for all the evidence, no human life is mentioned in the second verse.

The final verse dismisses the consequences of the destruction, completing the history of the episode. Reality and perception merge, and while the testament to destruction of the first two verses is authenticated, it is an entirely different attitude that prevails. Ashbery chooses precisely the correct term: “Fortunately, the war was solved/ In another way.” Only by treating the destruction as part of a “solved” riddle can one explain the apparent joy amid the destruction. After all, winners rarely emphasize the details of failed campaigns in their histories. Ultimately, rivers triumph where mountains fail by “isolating the two sections/ Of the enemy’s navy.”

As the winners selectively emphasize—one might say rewrite—their history, they allow people to “quietly move among the rustic landscape/ Scooping snow off the mountains.” As the war ends, the survivors begin to return to the life outlined in the first two verses. This is a life of tax assessments and traffic and “the unassassinated president”—a haunting phrase in 1966 that has lost little of its impact. The leaders will read letters and create stamps to celebrate the victory. By the end of the third verse, the verse that elides the moment of triumph, “loveWetting pillow and petal,” appears to have fashioned a “sun-blackened landscape.” Ashbery, having tempered desolation with images of pale hope, now turns the brightest moment of celebration into a time of reflection.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 306

In Other Traditions (2000), Ashbery notes that three lines by composer Franz Schubert offer a “magnificent” definition of poetry: “But the poem is just this/ Speaking of what cannot be said/ To the person I want to say it.”

Much of Ashbery’s early work—from his exquisitely provocative first volume in 1956, Some Trees (W. H. Auden’s 1956 selection for the Yale Series of Younger Poets), through the pointillist pieces in The Tennis Court Oath (1962) and Rivers and Mountains—is more deliberately evocative than provocative. This is not to say that Ashbery does not want readers to contemplate or consider his work so much as react to it. Yet, like a painting by Larry Rivers or Jackson Pollack, contemplation is subsumed by the visceral nature of one’s reaction.

Ashbery himself has expressed some reluctance to embrace his early works. This, however, should be viewed in the context of poets such as Auden, who rewrote his early works to fit his later personal and political conceptions. In the context of such remarks as Auden’s that his own “The Orators” “must have been written by a madman,” Ashbery’s statement that “Europe” from The Tennis Court Oath “helped me along but I don’t value it as much as [later poems]” is positively enthusiastic.

“Rivers and Mountains” follows the free-verse form of poetry popularized by modernist poets, most notably T. S. Eliot. However, Ashbery follows in Auden’s tradition of using modernist form while maintaining a distinctly nonmodernist (if not precisely postmodernist) sensibility. Like Auden, Ashbery is more likely to write from the personal and less likely to declare his writing deep or profound. Neither of these in themselves keeps the work from being either universal or profound, though some critics seem to believe that profundity is limited to those who proclaim their work and themselves profound.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 129

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