Naked Men Waving Hats.

John Ashbery is a longtime LH favorite (see my 2017 obit post, as well as the previous ones linked therein), so I read Ange Mlinko’s NYRB review (September 23, 2021, issue; archived) of his posthumous Parallel Movement of the Hands: Five Unfinished Longer Works, edited by Emily Skillings, with great pleasure, and I will quote below some bits that particularly grabbed me (from one of which I excavated the clickbait post title):

When we say that a poem is “good”—not with the dubious implication that it’s not great but with genuine satisfaction—are we unconsciously echoing Genesis, “And God saw that it was good”? It’s not such a stretch: the poet and critic Susan Stewart theorizes that the declaration of goodness is one of the three qualities of the biblical phrase that make it “a paradigm for the philosophy of art in the West.” And what this paradigm implies is that the work, in order to be judged good, must be done: “The proclamation of something’s goodness indicates it is time to stop making.” The scriptural word in the Hebrew borrows from an Akkadian verb meaning “to inspect and approve,” used in the Code of Hammurabi to refer to the work of masons and other craftsmen; surely a building is good if it’s finished enough to keep the elements out and not fall on one’s head. Alternate translations of the Hebrew have found English terms other than “good”: “It was declared finished” or “brought to a satisfying close.” […]

Collage was the major innovation of modernist poetry in English, and Ashbery wielded the method his entire career. Pound and Eliot introduced it, studding their work with quotations from the classical canon; Moore mixed high and low, newspapers and guidebooks, the famous and the anonymous. Collage was Ashbery’s medium in visual arts; he had pursued painting lessons as a teenager, then became an accomplished collagist at Harvard.

In 1962, when The Tennis Court Oath was received with bewilderment, he probably took the method further than anyone besides Pound. […]

“The Kane Richmond Project” collages text from the Tom Swift and Hardy Boys adventure series from the 1950s and 1960s, in addition to the actor’s serials. This, too, points to Ashbery’s originary identification of childhood, reverie, and eroticism: included with the poem are reproductions of some of his source materials, the children’s books surrounding a publicity shot of Kane Richmond in his “spy-smasher” costume, a variant of the handsome square-jawed American hero from the midcentury. […]

Emily Skillings emerges as the heroine of this story. Ashbery, busy typing when she arrived at his apartment in 2010, deputized his husband, David Kermani, to interview her in his stead; I like to think he hired her in part for her name, which he might have borrowed from one of his serials. […] She acknowledges the “incredibly exciting, almost voyeuristic” feeling of having access to unfinished works by her favorite artist, but she also perceives something mystical “in seeing the corrections, the thought process, the additions and subtractions.” She remembers him speaking, in an interview with Mark Ford, about the studies Jacques-Louis David did for his unfinished painting Le Serment du Jeu de paume (The Tennis Court Oath): “Before he did paintings of clothed people he drew them naked, and then after he’d do them with clothes—so there are drawings of naked men waving their hats in the air.” Ashbery, she felt, would understand and approve of her sleuthing among his unfinished works. Her accounts of finding the various manuscripts, in various states of disarray, transform the drudgery of documents and filing cabinets into an adventure tale.

In fact, reading Skillings’s extensive introduction and encyclopedic notes, one is reminded of those archivist-detective stories, Pale Fire and The Aspern Papers, crossed, perhaps, with a Dickinson exegesis: Which title did he want here—“The Kane Richmond Project” (typed), “The Kane Richmond Story” (“Story” handwritten with question mark on typescript), or “Spy Smasher” (typed beneath the first title, it is circled and questioned in handwriting: “Change title?”)? When was a typo an error, or an error a bit of mischief?

In his poetry, Ashbery had a habit of using both British and American spellings of words, choosing alternate spellings over dominant ones, creating compounds that would ordinarily be hyphenated or separated and making two words out of what would normally be one.

Ashbery was well aware of these “bumps,” which were “an important aspect of my poetry…. I’ve argued with translators over this. They invariably say, ‘But you can’t say that in French.’ And I say, ‘But you can’t say it in English either.’” […]

Perhaps the most heroic feat Skillings performs is in the notes to the poems, where she painstakingly tracks down as many cultural references as she can. Ashbery packed his work with them, as if to provide an alternate definition of autobiography—not what you did and where you went, but what consumed your attention. For “The History of Photography,” Skillings locates references—to name just a few—to Daguerre, Baron Adolph de Meyer, Eadweard Muybridge, Eugène Atget, Francis Frith, and Charles Nègre, as well as Walter Benjamin, Ernest Hemingway, Matthew Arnold, Sir Walter Raleigh, Macbeth, and Robert Ripley of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!

“The Kane Richmond Project” is a tour de force of reference hunting: besides the Tom Swift and Hardy Boys adventure books and the actor’s oeuvre, Skillings must have had to familiarize herself with a vast array of cultural artifacts from the history of film, television, science fiction, children’s literature, art music, and folk music from the twentieth century and beyond, mostly American but sometimes French or British. It seems like a characteristic bit of Ashberian mischief that the poet who parodied instruction manuals ended up becoming a curriculum unto himself.

Thus Parallel Movement of the Hands is in fact two parallel books by Ashbery (providing the poems) and Skillings (providing the narrative and editorial scaffolding). The light this sheds on Ashbery’s procedures is welcome, and explains a little bit (but not reductively) about how the effects of his verse were achieved and how wrong detractors are when they say he utters nonsense. There are at least two ways I read his poems, including these posthumous ones. I see Ashbery as “a linguist creating several languages within a single language,” which is how Marianne Moore described Wallace Stevens. My theory, I feel, is borne out by lines like this from “19. Tense Positions with a ‘Peaceful’ Wrist,” a section of “The Art of Finger Dexterity”:

If New England resembled Bulgaria, both would
look like this bookcase that stands so moderately,
like a birthday, “things seen from right to left.”

And in that case, possession (nine points of the)
would inject its other meaning. Is this, in fact, Brazil,
which all foreign countries resemble, even
the United States? If not, let us hide our toes,
fall backward into stagnant ether that is what
rises at the end of all days, of all voyages
in and from the parlor. We must translate what is tense
into peaceful outcomes that will ripple back
to foreign origins, not wishing to know the name
for what happened or why we connived at it,
only that all points are equidistant and pleased,
and part of summer, the part of you that got on with it.

Like Mallarmé, who enjoined us to remember that a poem is not a newspaper, Ashbery attempts a parallel English in which a sentence doesn’t merely exist to communicate its lexical meaning in the shortest amount of time. There is no message; it is all metonyms: the metonyms of geography (New England, Bulgaria, Brazil), time (birthday, points on a timeline), language (bookcase, translate, tense, name). The imaginative distance between “voyages” and “the parlor” is thus collapsed in language, in reading, and in the rhythmic weaving of metonyms to create pleasurable gaps and sudden connections.

That segues into the second way I read Ashbery: as pure reverie, defined by Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Reverie (1960) as “lived out in a relaxed time which has no linking force. Since it functions with inattention, it is often without memory.” This was evident from Ashbery’s public readings, several of which I attended in the late 1990s and early 2000s: unlike poetry readings where active listening—following intentional meanings as syntax unfolds in time—is real work, an Ashbery reading was more like a meditative exercise. The beautiful sentences just washed over you; I remember audiences seeming relaxed in their alertness, and—unusual for readings—unbored.

Skillings’s book offers a third way to read Ashbery: as a secret compendium of references, a social gathering of kindred spirits that offers itself up for literary detective work. It doesn’t much matter, of course, that these poems are “unfinished.” They metaphorically keep alive the poet who is physically no longer with us, as well as the other makers and dreamers who aroused his gigantic imagination.

I was at one of those public readings, and I can attest to the effect. The “alternate definition of autobiography” reminds me of Godard, who also packed his work with cultural references, and his “bumps” bring to mind T.E. Lawrence’s attitude toward inconsistencies. (“She was a splendid beast.”)


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    The scriptural word in the Hebrew borrows from an Akkadian verb

    All together now: Oh, no it DOESN’T!
    (A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.)

    The thesis is also nonsense: as Auden rightly says, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”
    (Though the wording is vague enough that that might even be what the reviewer is actually trying to say, which would make the etymological nonsense even less to the point.)

  2. Yes, I debated whether to include that first paragraph, but I figured it would bring out the “Someone is wrong on the internet!” response and induce comments. My clever plan worked!

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    Hah! I fell into your fiendish trap. Curses!

  4. jack morava says
  5. David Eddyshaw says

    Naked men wearing hats

    Rorschach test?

  6. John Cowan says

    Hah! I fell into your fiendish trap. Curses!

    Don’t be making a habit of that, now.

    I read Ange Mlinko’s NYRB review (September 23, 2021, issue; archived) of his posthumous Parallel Movement of the Hands: Five Unfinished Longer Works edited by Emily Skillings, with great pleasure

    Awkward sentence much?

    possession (nine points of the)

    But that’s not saying how many points the law might have, as my father was fond of saying.

    Is this, in fact, Brazil, which all foreign countries resemble, even the United States?

    But no. Brazil is in fact the Federative Republic. It is Mexico that is the United States.

  7. … as Auden rightly says, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”

    Hmm. Auden probably paraphrases Paul Valéry who wrote (in “Au sujet du Cimetière marin”, Nouvelle Revue Française, March 1933):

    “Aux yeux de ces amateurs d’inquiétude et de perfection, un ouvrage n’est jamais achevé, – mot qui pour eux n’a aucun sens, – mais abandonné; et cet abandon, qui le livre aux flammes ou au public (et qu’il soit l’effet de la lassitude ou de l’obligation de livrer) est une sorte d’accident, comparable à la rupture d’une réflexion, que la fatigue, le fâcheux ou quelque sensation viennent rendre nulle.”

    And Oscar Wilde had said something similar.

  8. Stu Clayton says

    Among the many, many sayings attributed in the ‘net to Wilde is “books are never finished, they are merely abandoned”. Sources are rarely given. Following that procedure, I claim that he invented the hernial truss.

  9. ktschwarz says

    This is a job for the Quote Investigator, who concludes that not only was Valéry the originator, but Auden specifically credited him: “On revisions as a matter of principle, I agree with Valery: ‘A poem is never finished; it is only abandoned.’” [sic “Valery” in Auden’s foreword]

    Somebody attributed it to quote-magnet Wilde in a 2004 collection by the Bathroom Readers’ Institute. If you can find a citation of Wilde saying something like it, Quote Investigator would certainly be interested.

    I’ve heard the saying many times with a book as the thing that’s never finished, but never with any attribution; I had no idea it had an actual origin point.

  10. J.W. Brewer says

    The style “Republica Federativa do Brasil” was only adopted in 1967, prior to which the official name of the place was “Estados Unidos do Brasil” back to 1937 and the wordier “Republica dos Estados Unidos do Brasil” before that back to the late-19th-century demise of the “Imperio do Brasil.” (Both name changes occurred during authoritarian/illiberal interludes, FWIW.) So “Estados Unidos” was the name when Ashbery was a boy and perhaps the right age to be picking up such trivia. Although I do not read Ashbery’s comparison as relying on that name, esp. given the absence of a parallel historical-onamastics angle in his hypothetical comparison of New England to Bulgaria.

  11. DE, LH:

    Being well protected by Ignorance from falling into any traps of this sort, I would have been perfectly happy to believe that the Hebrew ‘borrows from an Akkadian verb meaning “to inspect and approve,” used in the Code of Hammurabi to refer to the work of masons and other craftsmen’. What does it really do?

    The passage quoted from Susan Stewart’s book is here, about 59% into the sample:

  12. J.W. Brewer: in my experience with people from various parts of the US, New England does seem, subjectively, the part most culturally similar to Bulgaria, but I can’t articulate why exactly. I have had fundamental misunderstandings with people from Arizona, the mid-west and Louisiana, but not with someone from New England.

  13. David Eddyshaw says


    The problem is compounded by the fact that Ange Mlinko has clearly misread Susan Stewart.


    The Akkadian word cited has nothing whatsoever to do with the word used in Genesis 1, which is the bog-standard ordinary Hebrew word for “good.” Susan Stewart seems to be imagining that that the Genesis creation account is translated from (or inspired by, or something) an Akkadian creation myth which uses that exact Akkadian word*, and “therefore” that is what the Hebrew really means (as opposed to what it actually says.)

    The sample is a farrago of pseudoscholarship.
    I don’t take kindly to this sort of smoke-and-mirrors pretend scholarship, either Stewart’s original free-association noodling or Mlinko’s careless misreading of it. It brings the game into disrepute.

    * So she says. In view of the somewhat loose relationship she seems to have with humdrum accuracy, I’d like to see for myself rather than take her word for it. Presumably she’s on about

  14. The Hebrew word ṭōb has cognates all over, and is reconstructible to Proto-Semitic. The Akkadian cognate (in the link above) is translated ‘good, sweet, fresh, aromatic, benevolent’: nothing to do with buildings.

  15. ktschwarz says

    Stewart and Mlinko are playing a game of telephone that starts with Genesis: Introduction, Translation, and Notes (Anchor Bible series) by actual Assyriologist E.A. Speiser, cited by Stewart in a footnote:

    II.2 On the seventh day God brought to a close the work that he had been doing, and he ceased on the seventh day from all the work that he had undertaken.
    Under circumstances that are similar in kind if not in degree, Akk. employs the verb šuteṣbû in the sense of “inspect and approve”; this is applied to the work of craftsmen (masons in the Code of Hammurabi 233) and even to the birth of Marduk (ANET, p. 62, line 91). In this account, God inspects the results of each successive act and finds them pleasing. The end result could well be described as work “brought to a (gratifying) close.” A. Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis, p. 127, proposes “declared finished,” which appears to point in the same direction.

    So the verse Speiser is discussing is *not* “God saw that it was good”, and the verb (not adjective) that he’s discussing is equivalent to “finished”, not “good” (Hebrew כָּלָה kalah ‘to be finished, to be completed’). Susan Stewart then completely muddles the distinction:

    Informed by their sense of goodness as success or completion, the writers of the Hebrew scriptures borrow from the Akkadian verb šuteṣbû, which indicates “to inspect and approve.” It is a word applied to the work of craftsmen such as the masons in section 233 of the Code of Hammurabi. The translator of the Babylonian Genesis translates the phrasing “It was good” as “It was declared finished.” The editor of the Anchor Bible prefers “brought to a gratifying close.”

    Nope. Genesis doesn’t equate good with finished, they’re separate statements (what’s “finished” is the entirety of the universe; what’s “good” is the bits on each day, the fruit trees and birds and so on; it isn’t “finished” until there’s a whole structure in place, the sun nourishing plants which nourish animals). And no, it didn’t borrow any verb, and no, Heidel wasn’t translating the “it was good” verses, he was translating the “God finished” verse. Free-association noodling, yeah. But it’s so vague that it’s not surprising that Mlinko went even further and got the sequence “good” to “finished” backwards!

  16. Stu Clayton says

    What is a “game of telephone” ? Is it a friendly exchange of views at different times, where in each call whoever proffers a view elides the details ? So that the participants end up believing they are in agreement, but have reached that belief only by skating over the details ?

  17. J.W. Brewer says

    @Stu: “auch bekannt als … Telefonspiel.”

  18. ktschwarz says

    Also known as Chinese whispers.

  19. DE, Y, ktschwarz:

    Thanks so much for those answers.

    God’s take on this would also be interesting, but possibly less clear.

  20. beg to differ with the “poem never finished” faction. “Yeats used to say that the finished poem made a sound like the click of the lid of a perfectly made box.” –Conversations with Donald Hall

  21. Stu Clayton says

    God’s take on this would also be interesting, but possibly less clear.

    And unreliable. “God is a witness that cannot be sworn.” [Beckett, Watt]

  22. I am not especially fond of God’s Trombones by James Weldon Johnson, but I found his rendering of the “good” part from Genesis strangely memorable.

    And God stepped out on space,
    And he looked around and said:
    I’m lonely —
    I’ll make me a world.

    And far as the eye of God could see
    Darkness covered everything,
    Blacker than a hundred midnights
    Down in a cypress swamp.

    Then God smiled,
    And the light broke,
    And the darkness rolled up on one side,
    And the light stood shining on the other,
    And God said: That’s good!

  23. Bathrobe says

    There is a Chinese word that means something like ‘inspect and hand over’ (a building) but I can’t for the life of me remember it.

  24. Bathrobe says

    Ah, the word I had in mind was 验收 (驗收), which means inspect and accept (take delivery of).

  25. ktschwarz:

    Quote Investigator would certainly be interested.

    Ah, so would we all. I, like the majority of humanity, recall Wilde making such an assertion. And Flaubert? And Leonardo et al.? But you’re right: it’s elusive beyond reason. The quest for sources must be abandoned forthwith.

  26. The verb root klh occurs elsewhere in the OT in various senses of ‘finish’ (including even ‘to destroy’). It occurs many times in the context of completing a task, including completing a structure (the ark, the tent of meeting, the temple). Given the many times where the object of the verb is an action, or a task within a larger project, I don’t see that the verb klh ever had the sense of the Akkadian šuteṣbû ‘inspect and approve of a completed building’. klh just means ‘to finish’. Any connection between the biblical stories and the Akkadian ones does not include a similar meaning between those two verbs.

  27. David Eddyshaw says

    I see that šuteṣbû actually means “execute according to a plan.”

    As far as I can make out, in Enūma Eliš it is used of Anu creating Marduk.

    The parallel with Genesis seems … inexact.
    I expect that ə actually knows about all this, though.

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