(De)Facing Time: Ashbery's "Clepsydra" and Baudelaire's "L'Horloge".

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Author: Shawn Normandin
Date: Mar. 2021
From: Twentieth Century Literature(Vol. 67, Issue 1)
Publisher: Hofstra University
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,886 words
Lexile Measure: 1330L

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The 1965 poem "Clepsydra" challenges some of the historical claims made about the late John Ashbery. Marjorie Perloff (1978: 196) has cited Ashbery's work and Frank O'Hara's as evidence "that poetry in the second half of the twentieth century has finally turned its back on the legacy of Symbolism." (1) David Herd (2001: 109) finds "Clepsydra" "discoursing on Romantic and modernist aesthetics even as in its practice it is moving dramatically beyond them." But turning one's back on something is not a reliable way of displacing it, and "Clepsydra" demonstrates the resilience of literary traditions. Instead of placing Ashbery beyond one or another historical category, we would be better off paying tribute to the literary modernity that motivates such categories. According to Paul de Man (1983: 148), "Modernity exists in the form of a desire to wipe out whatever came earlier, in the hope of reaching at last a point that could be called a true present, a point of origin that marks a new departure." A would-be modern poet wants to transcend literature, to create something irreducible to what people think literature is. Though literature as we know it would not exist without this desire, rigorous literary texts concede, with varying degrees of coyness, the impossibility of satisfaction: "After the initial moment of flight away from its own specificity, a moment of return follows that leads literature back to what it is" (159). Few twentieth-century poems are as aware as "Clepsydra" of the compulsive futility of wiping out the past. Ashbery's resistance to linear time allegorizes the process of literary modernity that de Man would theorize a few years later. "Clepsydra" grows tired of its ingenious efforts, and fatigue reinscribes the poem in a literary tradition (be it symbolist, modernist, or romantic). The reinscription affirms an austere truth, but the poem's chief rewards are the manifold ways it flirtatiously evades this truth.

One way to trace the poem's evasion is to study its handling of a particular trope, prosopopoeia. James Paxson (1994: 1), the leading theorist of prosopopoeia, defines it as "the readily spotted figure--through which a human identity or 'face' is given to something not human." Defacing this trope--the trope of the face--"Clepsydra" resists the literary past, since nothing says Literature like personification allegory. (2) But by repeating this tactic, Ashbery calls attention to what he defaces and performs its tenacity. Though the defacement of personification is discernible in many of his other poems, "Clepsydra," thronged by spectral faces, makes the trope a character in the temporal predicament the poem narrates. As we will see, "Clepsydra" often floats ephemeral personifications, like the faces of drowned people rising just below the surface only to sink once more. Ashbery admired Auden's "way of personifying and of making things concrete" (Remnick 1980: 14). (3) Nonetheless, the recurrent struggle of "Clepsydra" is to prevent personifications from becoming concrete.

"Clepsydra" is a rare word for a rare thing. "It's a physical device for telling the time," Timothy Morton (2012: 104) explains; "a clepsydra...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A663352074