Geoffrey G. O’Brien: Canceled Pastoral: Ashbery’s “The Instruction Manual” and Genre Responsibility

This essay was originally delivered as a talk at Saint Mary’s College, September 16, 2015.

The poet and critic Allen Grossman has said that poetry addresses itself to two fundamental problems or limits: death and the barrier of other people’s minds. What he doesn’t discuss in this formulation are the material conditions in which those problems present themselves and in which any poetry that tasks itself with confronting them is written. But such conditions—economic and social—obtain in any historical moment from antiquity to the corporatist present and not only affect a poem’s situation, they constitute a third limit: the poet’s constrained imagination of those other limits, death and people, and of poetry’s capacity to reach and traverse them. One crucial version of that third limit is time, which at all times is an economic commodity—the act of composition is a labor that requires time and thus freedom from other labor, either purchased with one’s own work or by virtue of the work of others, usually both. Poetry has several ways of forgetting the fact that it’s underwritten by labor, that there is endless occupation supporting its vocation, the easiest of which is, like Grossman’s account of the poetic task, simply not to mention it. A specific, reliable form of this unmentioning is called pastoral.

In classic pastoral, the complicated social world of labor and class division is conveniently dismissed in favor of a worldpicture wherein another distinction disappears, the difference between idleness and work, otium and negotium. Humanity is condensed to the single figure of a shepherd whose work consists in watching sheep eat or taking a nap under a tree or perhaps piping out a languorous song. This human-at-ease is also continuous with nature rather than in enthusiastic dominion over it—in pastoral space you can pluck fruit from a tree rather than be forced to cultivate the earth, and if the sheep will eventually need to be shorn or slaughtered, well that is conveniently outside the right-now of the poem’s temporal frame. In such propitious conditions, the work of the shepherd becomes a kind of loafing in which there is plenty of time to consider making song. That song is a stand-in for the poetry that represents it and a willful misrepresentation of the actual temporal freedom that permits the poem, in which other kinds of labor are dispelled or sublimed into the productive idleness of composition.

I want to look today at a mid-20th century pastoral, Ashbery’s “The Instruction Manual,” in order to consider what happens when this pastoral mode is invoked and inhabited, but with a change in function. In Ashbery’s poem, the shepherd has been replaced by a technical writer, writing has actually become a form of paid labor, and the green world and its harmonious accommodation of human needs have been replaced, first by the American skyscraper and the office cubicle and then by a city of the Global South, Guadalajara. In such conditions Ashbery finds it impossible fully to inhabit the pastoral drive to forget, to exchange the world of the poem’s production for the more pleasant world it brings into representational view. Instead, the poem relentlessly folds those material conditions—alienated labor, the anonymous urban crowd, an environment of concrete, metal, and glass—into the pastoral dream embedded in the poem such that, rather than an example of pastoral, we encounter a critical examination of the pastoral drive itself, of the desire to forget labor and its situation. This is a poem that forgets to forget and in so doing becomes an instruction manual in how to remember, to retain, to confront the world in which it is made and offered.

John Ashbery: The Instruction Manual

We are far from the otium of the shepherd here—idleness has become a worker’s trivial rebellion, a theft of paid time within an almost total enclosure; rather than ease it’s a delinquent not-working in which one looks through a slim aperture onto the outsides of similar buildings hosting similar situations. But the work from which the speaker turns is itself a form of writing, a technical, commercial kind, though one that retains the trace of physical labor in the term “manual.” Labor has lost some of its association with the physical manipulation of materials and those materials are now manipulable by science in their very essence, such that “new metal” can be created. Just as otium and negotium have been replaced by not-working and working, writing itself has lost its total association with otium and split in two: writing as labor (looking down at one’s desk) and writing as looking out. The poem immediately complicates even this, as the speaker’s “look down” is not back to a desk but down into the streets where there are “people, each walking with an inner peace” and apparently to be envied for being so far from the trap of paid work. This is the first moment of suspicious pastoral in the poem, in which all people (“each”) apparently possess an inner peace that actually marks the speaker’s refusal to grant them all the complexity and misery of modern life. For they are obviously workers too, out on their lunch breaks, or messengers or, at best, tourists on brief reprieve from their work lives elsewhere. That attribution of inner peace marks the unimaginative anti-empathetic dis-eased vision of the trapped worker, busy refusing a task but distributing that bitter refusal in inverted form over everything and everyone else seen.

And it’s all this—being trapped in a tower, having to turn writing towards bad “uses,” looking out instead, looking down only to mis-see all others as free, as free from worry because one is all worry—it’s this that gives rise to daydream, to the eruption of an extended pastoral sequence within the misery of paid labor. The worker’s body arranges itself for this more substantial though immaterial escape by “resting” the elbows on the worksurface, becoming the 20th c. equivalent of shepherd-under-tree, and leaning slightly out the window towards the false freedoms of elsewhere. This is the speaker’s “way” or path to the nowhere of pastoral vision. But there’s a glitch in that way just like there’s something worrisome inside and behind the easy discovery of “inner peace.” The poem rearranges the syntax of the phrase “as is my way” to “as my way is”—that rearrangement of the idiom makes the way literally be, a passage one could take rather than only a habit of mind; but of course these two forms of way, path and tendency, will converge here in the daydream, that technology for passing out of one’s embodied circumstances and into another disembodied world—quite useful for a bored or discontented worker and barely distinguishable from pastoral. We could call daydream a psychic pastoral that leaves no visible trace or record like the poem does. But this is a poem about the desire to daydream rather than an intact example of one, and it’s a poem that further frames that desire to daydream within an anti-desire, the “wish” not to “have to” do another kind of writing, an overly and only useful one, one in fact about “uses,” in this case of a new metal (about which more later).

Which is perhaps why the objects and coordinates of pastoral in the ensuing daydream will carry within them much of the situation that motivated the daydream itself. Instead of a green world, another city, albeit a less built-up one. In fact, technically, it is entirely undeveloped, because the speaker has never seen it, though it was the one he most wanted to see and, curious phrase, “most did not see” while on an actual trip to Mexico. It is therefore a city that does not exist, that is the obverse of the city in which the daydreaming worker-writer is trapped, and it’s the city most capable of sustaining his fantasies and rewarding his anti-desire’s desires because there are no actual features to impede his mobile vision. But it’s also an example of just what he’s been doing when looking down through his actual window, most not-seeing the city and its persons for what they are, most mis-seeing them as peaceful. And the otium of this pastoral is somewhat degraded, much like that of the daydreaming body; if originally otium meant ease, it has become now only a kind of leisure bought by work and from there passes into a kind of “way” called tourism, where one passes through infrastructures and systems not one’s own, able to enjoy as quaint or picturesque what locals must experience as something else, something they wish they didn’t have to do or encounter.

So before we even begin to see Guadalajara, it has been dimmed—dreamed rather than seen, mis-seen because of the pressures producing the dream. And the poem remembers what the speaker may not; when he says “I fancy I see”—seeing is at least quadruply mediated—by the fact of not seeing, by the confession of a powerful desire to see, by being only fancied, and because it occurs “under the press of having to write the instruction manual” rather than a poem. Unlike pastoral vision, which pretends the objects of its fantasy are present to it, Ashbery’s critical daydream doesn’t forget that the things its vision presents are not there and are fantasized—the pressure of having alienated writing to do produces an examination of the desire for an unalienated living and writing practice such that that pressure of having to work is like a printing “press,” literally producing both technical writing and the flight from it—into a daydream and the subject hosting that dream and the poem we have before us that stands as a mimesis of that suspiciously innocent dream.

Daydreaming is therefore not so much the stealing back of one’s labor, but the work of not-working which permits one to tolerate a life in which one’s labor-time is mostly stolen. Thus we are all Scheherazade, which is the soundtrack to this dream, singing, writing, working every day for our suppers so that we may live. And yet, despite all these signs that we are not to trust the sight-seeing going on because what we are seeing is mostly the act of willful seeing itself, we do get many of the trappings of classic pastoral, however degraded or flimsy. One kind of Guadalajaran work is selling flowers and to sell flowers is to be a “flower-girl,” to be continuous with both nature and commodity at once; and if you sell roses, you will even look sort of like one in your “rose-and-blue striped dress.” If you serve green fruit you will wear green, and so on, a serene or ominous color coding in which work is indistinguishable from uniform, uniform from human being, and human being is merged with the green world. It’s a “holiday mood” that extends to “everyone” much like “each” of the people on the street outside the daydream was possessed of an inner peace—both that peace and this mood refer to not-working, to not having to, to not even having to wish not to. The only negotium on offer is that of being “busy” with “wife or loved one,” with love-relations rather than business.

As the world sight-seen becomes more and more implausible in its peaceful absence of social contradiction it seems also to be becoming more and more real via its details, the dim made vivid. The pastoral lurches to life from its rest and one can even have “lost sight” of a dreamed person as though he had his own agency—it’s a joke about the pastoral world being so alive, so well-fantasized that its maker is suddenly subject to the physical laws of its fictive universe, or they have lost their ficticity. Here the loss of control over vision, the “lost sight,” becomes an index of the power of the vision to convince and cause the embodied daydreamer (who of course is also the reader) to forget his or her situation for that of the poem. And yet it’s precisely that ludicrous level of verisimilitude that causes us not to forget, we detach from the speaker’s position and watch him in his lost sight instead. The loss of sight is a gain in reality thickness for the daydreamer, but that more plausible world comes via a lost sight of the daydreamer’s material circumstance that the reader doesn’t surrender so much as laugh at and with, gaining a critical vantage on the vision itself.

Loss of sight and the distribution of agency in the dream are only one method the daydreamer and poem have for absurdly or subversively stocking the pastoral. That gain can also be achieved via a welter of concrete details that fill out the poem’s noun universe—each toothpick and shawl a contribution to the well-rendered CGI background of the poem’s action, though we could also argue that the background is the foreground here, detail the only event, the only event forgetting the details of one’s actual life. Yet such details do not only build and brighten the representation of “dim Guadalajara,” they perversely undo it at the same time. Because Ashbery has chosen to embed the daydream within the conditions that motivate it, all of the details carry the charge, in every sense, of taking us from one world to another, and swiftly come to seem wildly optional and desperately specific—why must we know that the slippers of the mustachioed man’s wife are patent leather or that the white house has green trim? This comic microattention is at once under- and over-motivated, performing a sleight of hand while revealing how the magician’s trick actually works. And it’s the poem’s genius that such details often perform yet another function beyond that of (un)convincing specificity by making jokes about precisely that, for the leather of the slippers is “patent” in several ways: even as we “slip” via this detail into the made visual field of the poem, the poem remembers to think about another kind of unwelcome writing, that of applying for a patent, as one would for a “new metal.” The details of the poem are patent instances of the desire of their maker to see and slip into another world, the green trim at the edges of the built environment.

The first and quite optional stanza break in the real world of the poem is timed to an intermission of the music in the dreamt Guadalajara (Scheherazade taking a break) and allows for a new “opportunity.” Like losing sight of a fellow, an opportunity within the dream-diegesis both thickens its reality and questions it as much as the formal break of stanza does. Why would one have less of an opportunity to move into a side-street if Scheherazade were still playing? And why use a business term like “opportunity” instead of “chance”? Why tip-toe precisely when the music isn’t playing? Behind “tip-toe” I hear another verb of manner of motion, “steal”—one “steals” into a side-street when furtive, which the speaker is because he’s responding to the external conditions of the dream not the music internal to it—his stealing back of his labor-time—within the conditions of the dream. Dream vision is itself the opportunity stolen and registers the furtiveness of that impermissible activity.

The stanza break, that other stoppage of music, also, for the first time in the poem, affords a shift from 1st person singular to 1st person plural and from there to an acknowledged second person who “may see” the “green trim” and all the other concrete details of fantasized place. This shift to a collective pronoun perhaps indicates that as the dream becomes ever more real it provides an “opportunity” to feel connected to those who were at the poem’s outset “so far away,” but who is actually filling out that “we?” The most immediate answer is “you,” the you that “may see” either what the I sees or the predicament of that daydreaming I itself, hopefully both. The most immediate antecedent for that you is therefore the reader, the one who then gets ecstatically “told” to “look” when in fact a white house with green trim is seen. But how or when did this you usher the reader into the dream and become subject to both explicit address and the details of Guadalajara? The only answer is the stanza break, a formal rupture after which new poem and dream laws can suddenly obtain without explanation: reading as the forgetting of embodied circumstances but not necessarily of their critical consideration. The stanza break is thus the visual sign of the poem’s difference from the dream it contains, a difference now also housed in the “you” who is “told” both the poem and every vivid detail of the dim, because most not seen, Guadalajara.

And one can’t even see all of the not-seen—the old woman who gives “us” a drink apologizes for her son’s absence:

“My son is in Mexico City,” she says. “He would welcome you too
If he were here. But his job is with a bank there.
Look, here is a photograph of him.”
And a dark-skinned lad with pearly teeth grins out at us from the worn leather frame.

The son is in another city, a real one, and has committed the sin of working and of working as something other than a flower-girl. Because he works for a bank, he cannot be here in this nearly jobless place. In fact, he is not only absent from Guadalajara but from the disalienated job of welcoming, and that good version of himself, as son and welcomer, may even be absent from his alienating occupation, because it isn’t he who’s with a bank but merely “his job.” But there is a photograph of him, in which we see teeth on the point of becoming precious commodities, pearls, and involved in a grin that seems to move “out” of the photograph, as though the still image of life could move back into life and out of its “worn…frame.” It’s hard not to see this photo as a neat emblem for the poem’s construction, in which a worn and wearying frame—worklife—houses an alarmingly vivid image of a missing life which one wishes could overwhelm its framing.

But we cannot “stay” within the framed dream nor bring it out with us into the frame, at best the poem can show us that desire to remain and forget the outside and the limits on such blind vision and mobile rest, which will give rise to the question “What more is there to do, except stay?” and its immediate and inevitable auto-reply “And that we cannot do.” It’s hard to think of that “more” as anything other than a complete transformation of economy rather than its fantasized suppression, but staying would seem to be a kind of more as well, at least providing more time away from the untransformed world of capital in order to do more unconvincing fantasy, unroll more Guadalajara via a looking-in rather than a looking-out, a mis-looking down rather than doing downcast work.

But the pressure from the frame diegesis always enters the dreamed version and thus it can be “getting late” both within the frame and outside it, a reality-effect that dissipates the reality it conjures. Before the pastoral ceases for good (rather than partly all the time) we are given a further opportunity, that of “catching” a view of the city from “a good high place.” The fact that we “must” do this makes it an order rather than a choice, just as leisure is a necessity within the order of work—we are “caught” in catching views, in stealing them, in being captive within them. And the high view that occurs in the daydream is a translation of the skyscraper view from the poem’s frame, now a “good high place” from where a view can be caught rather than a bad office tower in which one could be caught “sitting looking,” “looking out” rather than down at work). Unlike the unimaginative, unsympathetic top-down bad pastoral view of “everyone” in the poem’s antipastoral opening, here the view from on high opens onto legible social division: “There is the rich quarter… / There is the poorer quarter” and “the market” is allowed into the dream, perhaps counterbalanced by the “public library” with its collection of dreams held in common. As the town suddenly becomes analytically available to a topography of class, so does the poem—it has enacted bad pastoral in the beginning, outside its dream of simplicity, but within what ought to be a simple dream social difference and complexity return. The pastoral that sees itself, that sees sight rather than sight-seeing, remembers its true vantage and, like a glitch in the matrix, all the pastoral objects reveal their status as code. In this paradox of a world inside a world, a dream of leisure and tourism (what shepherding has become in the mid-twentieth century) in a working body, a writing under the press of another kind of writing, Ashbery’s critical pastoral can access another paradox of wish-experience, that it itself is at once both quite “complete” and quite “limited,” the details of a city and a city of details, a world and its falsification. That the poet uses “how” as an intensifier is perfect—it’s an assertion of intensity and vividness that remembers to almost question the nature and cause of intensity and vividness; it’s also beautifully bad writing in half of its formulation, for an experience cannot be very “complete,” it either is or it isn’t. Or is that even true? What about an experience that both does and doesn’t happen, that is daydreamed or that gives onto daydream? Perhaps the imprecision of “how complete” is a poetic precision, questioning the experience it offers of dim Guadalajara in order to offer the vivid experience of forgetting New York and point towards what “more” there is to do if we were to make New York unforgettably habitable.

Now the dream dies into a summary of that double-experience via a brief anaphora of the fragile first person plural (“we have seen…we have heard”) that, under the pressure to exit its public utopia, condenses back into a lonely 1st person singular and its actual vantage, the “way” out to which is effected by a “turn” in which “gaze” seamlessly moves from the pastoral tower back to the instruction manual in the office tower of the beginning as though both are in the same physical world, because, in fact, they are. The world where the work of one kind of writing on industrial uses caused the dream of another kind of writing that is useful for its departure into uselessness. In addition to the shift down into the 1st person singular we see a shift from nominative to accusative cases; as the I turns its gaze from a fantasized world to the instruction manual, it loses the power to “do more” and becomes the object of that manual rather than its author: “Back to the instruction manual which has made me dream of Guadalajara.” But this loss of agency, of the power to do, is not total—in an amazingly quiet-loud grammatical maneuver, the direct object “me” toggles back into subject, able to dream despite being made and made to. This is the grammatical subject of the poem and of capital that we have been invited to join—an object of economy that experiences itself as a subject and resists its proper function, producing poems rather than manuals. The I has been made me but the me dreams and the dream is lucid, guidable when it becomes poetry rather than actual moments of resistance to office work. As such it can carry its precipitating situation with it into the dream—the better world is only this world unsuccessfully forgotten and critically considered, and the poem is the instruction manual of that better world of consideration, a textbook lesson in how not to forget or in how to daydream more responsibly. The poem is a craft talk.

But what of the actual manual on the desk, of the fate of writing outside Guadalajara, of writing as work? Though it seems to exist, this situation too is a dream in the poem, for the “new metal” of the instruction manual is a reference to an invented element in a scene from Raymond Roussel’s Impressions of Africa, a surrealist novel of endless digression and vivid, fantasized detail, the Guadalajarization of a whole continent, one Roussel never visited and thus most did not see and could most make “impressions” of. And he sure did have time to write; having inherited a substantial fortune at a young age, he was not under the “press” of having to do anything. If there is any real “work” here it is only Ashbery’s, since he did graduate work on Roussel. Thus, the poem has a joke at its own expense, refusing to imagine real work, even in the frame outside its pastoral frame, as anything but poetry or writing on poetry. But that joke is there to be gotten, and can be accessed only by passing first through the idea of a merely technical writing, and that passage through the poem—through Roussel, through the inescapable fact of work for the rest of us, through the facts of production, of the city form, of rich and poor quarters, of the resistant worker and his body—is the “way” that Ashbery can use pastoral without letting it, or us, rest.

So why focus on a poem from the mid-50s in 2015? Because our scene of composition is fundamentally the same today. New metals are invented and people are not possessed of an inner peace, and writing occurs anyway, imagining itself as work or as leisure or as a difficult and unstable ratio of the two, making nothing happen. You don’t have to diagnose and negotiate capitalism in every poem, that would be pretty arid. You don’t have to turn pastoral against itself every time out. Your poems don’t have to mention explicitly the scene of their production, but it’s important to remember that they are that scene, the I made me and the me dreaming of an elsewhere. What you leave out of the dream of the poem will find its way back in.

Geoffrey G. O’Brien is the author most recently of People on Sunday (Wave Books, 2013); Metropole (2011), Green and Gray (2007), and The Guns and Flags Project (2002), were all published by The University of California Press. He is the coauthor (with John Ashbery and Timothy Donnelly) of Three Poets (Minus A Press, 2012) and (in collaboration with the poet Jeff Clark) of 2A (Quemadura, 2006). O’Brien is an Associate Professor in the English Department at UC Berkeley and also teaches for the Prison University Project at San Quentin State Prison.