When John Ashbery died in 2017 at the age of 90, he was widely regarded as one of the most important American poets of his generation. And yet, as Stephen J. Ross points out, critics have largely focused on the poet’s early and middle periods, with the result that his late work remains a “vast, largely unexplored territory.” At the heart of my work for this project is the aspiration to produce a reading of some Ashbery’s most significant and under-appreciated later poetry and to carry this out by attending to an aspect of his identity that has received even scanter attention, namely the Christianity to which he converted at around the age of 50. Having taken my initial cues from the transcript of a 2003 interview in which Ashbery mentions reading certain philosophers he considered “close to poetry,” I have found that the theoretical part of my research has been focused to a considerable extent on just one of those philosophers—the nineteenth-century Danish Christian thinker and creator of pseudonymous aesthetic texts, Soren Kierkegaard. My readings of the later Ashbery’s Christian poetics are partly situated in the fault-lines emerging from a range of recent critical responses to Kierkegaard. These include tensions between aesthetic, ethical, and religious ways of being in the world; between “indirect communication” and practical, quotidian care for the other; between parodic strategies of self-concealment and forms of self-creation directed toward confessional transparency before God; between despair and hope; and between the reality of temporal finitude and a teleological bid for the infinite. My research has involved a reading of all of Ashbery’s published poetic works, including some very recent posthumously published works, and his 214-page poem Flow Chart (1991) has become this project’s central primary text. The result of my philosophically mediated reading of this work is an interpretation that builds upon avowedly secularist critical responses by John Shoptaw and John Emil Vincent and enlarges them by attending to the poem’s deceptively parodic, “hiding-in-plain-sight” embodiment of Kierkegaardian Christian faith and longing. Where Shoptaw and Vincent relate, respectively, the poem’s ambivalently confessional character and its self-reflexive concern with anxiety as an engine of continued composition, my account tracks a faltering yet cumulatively decisive confessional “movement” of relation of self to itself toward the infinite. This part of my work is substantially informed by optimistic exegetical investigations by Sheridan Clough and Mark Bernier among others into the transformative uses of despair in Kierkegaard’s theology. Bernier is also one of the interpreters of Kierkegaard whose writing has helped me to relate the quotidian (homo)erotic aspects of Flow Chart to Kierkegaard’s understanding, in Works of Love (1847), of the Christian horizons of possibility that are presented when the lover is loved as the neighbor and through God.
|Effective start/end date||2019/08/01 → 2021/07/31|
- modern poetry
- “New York School,” Christianity
- homoerotic love
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