John Ashbery has been recognized as America’s preeminent ‘difficult’ poet. His poems have struck many readers as hard to understand, particularly those readers who think of poetry as aiming to convey a certain message. Even his strongest supporters admit that his poetry is often difficult to read and willfully difficult to understand. Helen Vendler, for example, says that “[Ashbery’s] style itself is impenetrable, that it is impossible to say what an Ashbery poem is ‘about’” (
The most remarkable aspect of Ashbery’s poetry is that his language comes to us as neutral or transparent information language or ‘data’ often displayed on a computer screen. Ashbery’s words are displayed as dry, provisional materials as “latest piece[s] of information” (
Ashbery’s surface language perhaps can find its mathematical description in Claude Shannon’s idea of information. According to Shannon’s mathematical theory of communication, information has nothing to do with meaning or significance of the message sent to a receiver. The significant aspect of the engineering problem is that the actual message is one selected from a set of possible messages. In Shannon’s information theory, information indicates a measure of the freedom of choice with which a message is selected from the set of all possible messages.
Information is rather related to the receiver’s uncertainty. If the receiver already knows what the message will be, the message conveys no information. The more uncertain the receiver is about the message, the more information is to be carried in the communication channel. Thus, information should be considered distinct from meaning, as it is possible for a string of nonsense words and a meaningful sentence to be equivalent in regards to the quantity of information. All words, or letters of an alphabet, are equal in weight. When one message is chosen from the set, while all choices are equally likely, information is a matter of the receiver’s selection from equally probable choices. The more choices offered a sender by a set of possible message, the more information the message chosen will contain. Information is the measure of your freedom of choice when you select a message. Shannon’s communication model consists of an information source, a transmitter, a signal, and a receiver, and a destination. The sender’s message is transmitted through one or more channels to elicit a response in a receiver. Noise is something that is not part of the message when sent out but is introduced in transmission (Figure 1).
If information is a matter of selection from equally probable choices, the most efficient way of selecting or transferring information is a binary choice: 1 or 0. One bit of binary choice is equivalent to the choice between two equally likely choices. The more uncertain or unpredictable an event is, the more binary bits it contains. On the contrary, if the event is predictable, the amount of binary bit is decreased. The message that is already known is called ‘redundancy,’ and the amount of information, in this case, is zero. However, if the message is not known like a series of coin tosses in which we are unable to see whether the coin will come up heads or tails, the level of ‘entropy’ or uncertainty is increased in proportion to the amount of information. A single toss of a fair coin, for example, has an entropy level of one bit. Two tosses has an entropy level of two bits. In Shannon’s information theory, entropy is a measure of the uncertainty of an observer concerning the state of a system one is observing. Entropy refers to the degree of randomness, lack of organization, or disorder in a situation. The more the amount of information, the higher the level of entropy and the lower the level of certainty or redundancy (Figure 2).
Shannon defined information as a probability function with no necessary connection with meaning, “not in the sense of meaningless, but in the sense of not yet meaningful” (Floridi 44). Ashbery’s poetry, like Shannon’s theory of information, seems to have nothing to do with what we know as mea ning in the usual sense. Ashbery is not interested in assigning meaning to the interpretive system of reference. What is he then trying to say in his poems? “Nothing specific, certainly nothing about any particular subject.” He says, “There is no message, nothing I want to tell the world particularly except what I am thinking when I am writing” (as quoted in Stitt 44). Ashbery’s language is free?floating, often out of context, moving in the realm of pure probability, not tied down to meaning or reference. Ashbery’s world is not a world of order, of cause and effect, or of certain significance. He does not use objects or images in his poems as symbolic windows onto the shared discourse. His words are simply juxtaposed and distributed on the page without a totaling order of thought. His poems proceed through a process of random juxtapositions resistible to analysis, and “the sheer materiality of the language of many of Ashbery’s poems preclude any communicable ‘message’” (Keeling 148). However, the more uncertain the message is, the more information it carries. If you receive a message that you already know, the information content is zero in Shannon’s mathematical model. Ashbery says, “I’m interested in communicating, but I feel that saying something the reader has already known is not communicating anything to him” (qtd. in Packard 80). Ashbery’s words are distributed on the surface with equal probability for selection. Ashbery treats obscure and even insensible portions of a poem no differently from the more intelligible, or operative, ones. The “sheer materiality” of his language, which cannot be resolved or translated back into a shared system of reference, contemplates to carry a maximum level of entropy, a maximum amount of information.
Shannon employed the notion of the receiver’s uncertainty as to the content of the message to be received. Bits are the number of elements needed to encode the number of possible messages. In fact, the theory of deconstructing a message and storing it as a series of bits has been a corner stone of electronic communication and digital technology in the late half of the 20th century. Unlike analog voltage or current signals, digital signals are generated, stored and processed as a string of binary digits. Because digital information is transmitted in a binary format like a series of multiple snapshots, not a continuous wave, it becomes easier to manipulate information. Such transmission of information in a binary format gives rise to hypertext. Hypertext offers certain structural possibilities for the composition of a new text, where bits of information can be linked to other bits, which are again linked to some other bits. Nelson, discussing the word hypertext in the 1960s, defines hypertext as “non sequential writing text that branches and allows choices to the reader, best read on an interactive screen. As popularly conceived, this is a series of text chunks connected by links which offer the reader different pathways” (0/2). A hypertext consists of nodes and their connections, where the nodes may be paragraphs, sentences, individual words, or indeed digitized graphics. Each node may participate in multiple paths, and its significance will depend upon which paths the individual reader has traveled in order to produce meaning. Each path defines an equally convincing and appropriate reading as there are no privileged elements that dominate others in hypertext.
The advent of hypertext has been anticipated in Ashbery’s idea of creating a verbal network of elements in his poetry. I have commented elsewhere on the parallel between Ashbery’s poetry and hypertext (159-69). Ashbery’s word is, in many cases, an isolated fragment bearing no discernible relationships to the fragments around it. Ashbery’s free—floating surface language is analogous to digital information more than context—bound analog information. As Perkins points out, “many a single line could be detached from its context as if it were a poem in itself” (618), just as many a word or phrase could be taken out and put into a different context to make connections with other fragments around it. Each line of thought can be treated as a single, distinctive ‘node’ in hypertext as it is a momentary position towards other nodes. “A hypertext is like a printed book that the author has attached with a pair of scissors and cut into convenient verbal sizes” (Bolter 24). Even within the print technology of the book, which must be read in a linear fashion, Ashbery manages to provide the possibility of multiple entry points. One can begin his reading at any point in Ashbery’s poetry and end his reading at any point that he likes. The reader is constantly led to relate one idea to another, one image to another, in order to reach a point that may help satisfy his or her curiosity.
In fact, it is the false gesture of meaning in Ashbery’s poetry that motivates us to find ‘links’ between disparate nodes of thoughts or images. Oftentimes, Ashbery’s ideas start out clearly but suddenly disappear in the very process of being proposed. Ashbery leaves out explanations and controlling contexts which would otherwise provide a comfortable transition from one thought to the next. For this reason, his writing is naturally deceptive, momentarily arresting our momentum, yet leaving us “Nothing but a bitter impression of absence, which as we know involves presence, but still” (
In a sense, hypertext is simply a technology that allows for a more rapid and complete way of conducting what most people usually do in reading poetry. Relating one element to others in the text, tracing specific references to other sources across texts are all activities of most readers. Susan Tosca says, “we could look at hypertext links as poetic texts that encourage readers to explore context in the search for an interpretation, rewarding them with the accessing of a wide range of implicatures” (218). This may be a level of self referentiality inherent in most poetry, particularly modern poetry. But in modern poetry written in the manner of symbolism, all disparate, random elements are carefully juxtaposed or organized for aesthetic structural unity and dramatic resolution, whereas the form of self referentiality in Ashbery’s poetry is an inevitable continuous search for connections without a desire for a complete structure. If the modern poetry allows us multiple readings in terms of symbolic, hierarchical references, the reader of Ashbery is advised to embark himself in the everlasting exploration of horizontal relationships between innumerable nodes and paths, which by definition are open-ended, expandable, and incomplete.
1It is Marjorie Perloff who exemplifies Ashbery’s surface language as a decisive postmodern break from the mode of writing in symbolism. In The Poetics of Indeterminacy, Perloff contrasts the “perfectly coherent symbolic structure” of Eliot’s “The Waste Land” with the indeterminacy of Ashbery’s poem “These Lacustrine Cities” (Indeterminacy 13). She borrows Roger Cardinal’s ideas from his essay “Enigma” to argue that the concern for “meanings below the surface” as in Eliot’s symbolism has given way to “increasing interest in the play of the surface itself” and that recent poems have become “work[s] of enigma . . .poised between sense and nonsense” (ibid. 29), a description which would clearly apply to Ashbery’s poetry written in the mode of indeterminacy.
It is this hypertextual sensibility that Ashbery’ poetry comes to embody. There is no real space in the Internet as there is no real tangible context in Ashbery’s poetry. Both are temporal and are a result of a process of association of ideas to construct a meaning. Both mark an attempt to exhaust the text through an intense exploration of the several possibilities latent in the text. In the Internet, this is achieved by the possibilities marked by the links as well as by the multiple ideas triggered by those links. In Ashbery’s poetry, the reader strives to exhaust the text by mentally constructing a number of links between the multiples ideas and images provided by the author. When a reader is done with her own reading of Ashbery’s text, she understands that she has achieved one of the many possible readings of the text as we can see in “Litany” and “Self- Portrait in a Convex Mirror”
“Litany” is one of Ashbery’s most ambitious long poems, consisting of a 68 page poem, several thousand lines written in double columns: as the poet’s note puts it, “The two columns of ‘Litany’ are meant to be read as simultaneous but independent monologues” (
There is no single metaphor that unifies the nodes of the poem, and their juxtaposition is casual and apparently chaotic. The starting point the reader selects to weave his own web of meaning doesn’t necessarily mean the first line of the poem. The beginning of the poem created on the reader’s mind can be any point in the poem. In the same fashion, the reading can end not necessarily at the last line of the poem but at any line in the poem or elsewhere. One can read the left hand column first and then the other. Or one can switch from left to right to read each page as it appears although the sentences rarely end with the page.
Needless to say, the two different voices, which are meant to be read simultaneously, affect the way we read the columns. At times, the two voices seem to overhear each other, to respond by echoing or by shifting to an aspect of the other’s topic. For instance, the “parents” who are “having wine and cheese” and “pissing elegantly” surely influences our reading of the more abstract “The milk of enchantment” and “explicit sex” on the right column, which in turn seems responsible for what makes “The / Snapdragons consumed in a / wind / of Fire” on the left column. This is one way we can read the poem, but every time we read it we find different connections to make and different directions to move on. The two columns disrupt any linear progression of reading and make our reading incomplete. Reading down one column, we are always aware that there is also the other to read. Without doubt, our reading is often thwarted, and the one alternative is taking a new path, “plunging into the middle of some other one that you have doubtless seen before” (
Interestingly, the two different voices appear to be commenting on the same subject: “knowledge.” On the one hand, we get a sense of concealment or absence: The drunken parents have “escape[d] knowledge once and for all.” On the other hand, we hear a kind of revelation or presence: something is “happening / behind tall hedges / Of “dark, lissome knowledge.” When one voice conceals, the other seems to reveal; when one voice stops, the other seems to continue the thought. They seem to compete with each other for attention. Perhaps these lines about knowledge nicely summarize the problem of meaning Ashbery has struggled with. He has repeatedly articulated the absence and presence of meaning or the gesture of meaning. Meaning, for Ashbery, is to be revealed only when it is being concealed, and vice versa. “What should be the vacuum of a dream / Becomes continually replete as the source of dream” (
This juxtaposition of the two different columns on the same page creates an interesting dynamic. It makes us suddenly engaged in the activity of web weaving. Even though the two columns seem to comment on the same subject, there is no single metaphor that unifies the disjunctive nodes of the poem. The poem juxtaposes disparate ideas that are brought together into a constellation, and the link is one forged by the reader who will construct the poem differently each time. Whichever way we read the poem, we are misplaced yet motivated to find connections within or across the columns. As Keeling points out, “We must, to a certain extent, construct the ‘plot’ of “Litany” for ourselves. We must acknowledge our own act of construction” (148). As we read the poem, White says, our “[consciousness] is before everything else a continuous activity of decoding” (
If “Litany” shows a horizontal cross referencing between two columns, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” presents a vertical cross-referencing between two self portraits, disclosing a world of multiplicity from within an overwhelmingly linear medium. The “Self-Portrait” is Ashbery’s most popular and most critically honored poem, which contains 552 lines divided into six verse paragraphs of unequal length. The poem claims to be about making a self-portrait like that of Parmigianino’s, the 16th century Mannerist painter, who “set himself / With great art to copy” (
As we read the poem, we are aware that, while following the poem’s faithful description of the Parmigianino’s painting, Ashbery’s poem also talks about his own self-portrait in a convex mirror. Like the two parallel columns in “Litany,” the two self-portraits echo each other in a number of ways. The two self-portraits are proximately positioned to create a series of embedded reflections. Just as, in “Litany,” one monologue draws on the other, Ashbery’s self-portrait draws on Parmagianino’s selfportrait.
The description of Parmigianino’s painting and speculation on the nature of self-representation are carefully juxtaposed, reflecting each other like in the “convex mirror.” The reader is going back and force between the descriptive and the self-reflexive, whose boundary becomes very unstable and after all indistinguishable. Each series of the description or speculation, as they continuously interact or interfere each other, is never complete in itself, but remains as a series of reproduction of itself or each other (Mazur 109). The convexity of the mirror makes our attention “[swerve] easily away” to deny any linearity of perspective, any fixed (mis)understanding. The mirror’s “180-degree angle” with “The surface / Of the mirror being convex” only distorts what it reflects (
In the intricate maze of cross-referencing, there is no distinction between the original and the copy, as there is no central or primary point that subjects other points. Making portrait itself is already more than “once removed” from its original. The echoes and mirrorings which function on so many levels in this poem result in a number of possible, often conflicting, readings. Thus, the self-portrait of Parmigianino can only come into existence through arbitrary selections made by the painter from among his perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. Already Parmigianino’s gaze in the mirror is selective. Just as in hypertext every reading is selective and therefore different, Parmigianino’s “glass chose to reflect only what he saw.” Every reading and reproduction carries with it its own selection.
“Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” in which Ashbery casts himself as a ‘reader’ of the Parmigianino’s portrait while writing a poem about his ‘own’ self portrait, dramatizes Ashbery’s idea of the artist as an (mis)interpreter, himself being (mis)interpreted as well: “the artist’s role is precisely to make himself misunderstood, that misunderstanding and appreciation are much the same” (
In the act of aesthetic communication, therefore, what is received is not exactly what was sent; there is always ‘noise’ in the channel that can modify the information. In the mathematical theory of communication, anything that arrives as part of a message, but that was not part of the message when sent out, can be considered noise introduced in transmission. The concept of noise, however, as it arrives from the theory of information, is not entirely satisfactory to use in talking about the work of art. The reader of an artistic text must be distinguished from the single receiver of information in a communicative situation. According to Abraham Moles, who proposes two aspects of information, aesthetic information is different from semantic information which have a “universal logic and structure translatable into a foreign language. . . . Esthetic information is specific to the channel which transmits it; it is profoundly changed by being transferred from one channel to another” (131). Once the reader of an artistic text assumes the task of integrating elements that ordinary codes of reading do not account for, then she is no longer simply a receiver of information. She becomes a creator of information as she moves on to a new level of understanding by integrating features which at a simplistic level seems a mere disturbance in the message. Noise extends the receiver’s freedom of choice in selecting a message. Noise can be measured in the same units as information; indeed, it is information, but information not intended by the sender. As a result, we engage ourselves in an interpretation dialogue with the text, which might give way to outcomes not even planned by the author. Ashbery says, “It is the principle that makes works of art so unlike / What the artist intended” (
In fact, Shannon’s mathematical theory of information is based on a set of assumptions for a special case of electronic communication in a closed system. Noise is a ubiquitous nuisance, such as misprints in a book, lines in a TV image, static on a radio, which are to be filtered out, unused, and simply labeled entropy. However, the concept of filtering information to remove noise from a channel does not apply to open systems like animal perception and human communication, which have different kinds of systems or organizing principles (McGavin 207). Living beings are not subject to entropy increase as predicted by the second law of thermodynamics because they are open systems, receiving energy from without. According to the recent development of information theory, so called Stochastic Resonance, the presence of noise in channels of information transfer is beneficial to the signal. In nonlinear open systems, noise is used by the receiver to augment and clarify the message (Douglass, Wilkens, Pantazelou, & Moss 337). When certain types of nonlinear interaction take place between signal and noise, there may exist “a possibility of cooperation between the signal and the noise, up to a point where an increase of the noise may improve the performance for transmitting or detecting the signal” (Chapeau-Blondeau 137). The appropriate amount of noise can facilitate its detection of a signal in a noisy environment. In several sense systems, both natural and engineered, the introduction of noise, traditionally considered ‘hindrance,’ can enhance the ability of the system to perceive signals in the environment. This paradoxical phenomenon has been reported in a variety of open systems, including electronic circuits, biological systems, and chemical reactions.
In particular, such a stochastic sense of information transmission has been manifested in Henry Atlan’s idea of the biological process of information transfer. Atlan, applying Shannon’s conceptions of entropy, information, and redundancy to living organisms, recognizes that self-organization occurs in response to ‘optimum’ levels of information or entropy that are achieved over time in biological systems. In order to explain the biological process, he uses an analogy of an open library as an illustration of the concept of information. In the library,
What Atlan calls “ambiguity,” which arises from “the difference between the books,” corresponds to the concept of noise, considering that what is received by book B cannot coincide with what is sent from book A. William Paulson, citing the Atlan’s passage in his
For the purpose of analysis, I like to expand the Paulson’s observation on Atlan’s biological information process (Paulson 73-78) to Ashbery’s poetry. Just like the Atlan’s open library, a message in Ashbery’s poetry is transmitted not within one set of communication systems, but through multiple sets of systems. As we read Ashbery’s poems, there is a natural link between two consecutive linear nodes, A and B. If so, then the link between the consecutive nodes can be a channel through which certain information is transmitted. In other words, there is a transmission of information from node A to B. Therefore, they contain within themselves instances of internal communication, of senders, channels, and receivers. But if there is an ambiguity of message that constantly disturbs the reader’s expectation of meaning, such partial destruction of a transmitted information within the system leads to an increase in the complexity of the information that this system in turn transmits to another system. The information of node A would not simply be sent to B; it would be constantly being sent out to many other nodes, which in turn would communicate with B by other links or paths, and it would itself be constructed out of information received from many other nodes.
Even though we intend to move “from point A to point B,” we find ourselves always drifting and “traveling” in our imagination through other points and other juncture finally to arrive at the point B. Such wandering in thoughts or rather the “potential for motion” is a “more effective” way of communication than the direct unfailing arrival at the destination. In Ashbery’s poems, there are many communication channels and systems. Each system in the text is linked by a whole set of structures to several other systems, and its meaning is thus always ‘deferred’ as a result of several different systems working together.
Ashbery’s text is made up of a number of complex systems, each of which representing a ‘node’ from which the others deviate, setting up a code of expectations. It gains its effects through clashes and tensions between these systems, creating the most complex form of discourse imaginable. The poetic text for Ashbery is thus a ‘system of systems’, a relation of relations. If there is any development in Ashbery’s poetry, it is sheerly nomadic and unpredictable. The reader is led to move from A to F, from F to C, creating a nomadic ‘smooth’ space that lacks a development and a hierarchical organization. There are parts in Ashbery’s poems that are invisible to the naked eye, but are latent or likely to emerge in further readings. Each new reading or arrangement creates a new text, opening the possibility of meaning. In such an artistic communication system, the ambiguity or noise produced by one system is transformed into information in another system. In Ashbery’s poems, we have no sure way of distinguishing noise from message since every word or node exists as equally probable choices. The ambiguity is a desirable addition to the message rather than interference. For the reader who intends to explore possibilities of meaning in the various transmission channels, the nose turns to constructive ambiguity. “Ashbery’s poetry,”
However, art should not be simply equated with noise or entropy. Extreme chaos is as destructive of information as extreme order. “Mere noise,” Arnheim proclaims, “involves a minimum of energy expended by producer and recipient, in spite of creating the illusion that much is going on. In the extreme case, again, it will reach the emptiness of homogeneity” (53). Therefore, we need to make a distinction between desirable and useless information. In information theory, if the message is a matter of selection, not every message awaits or invites our selection. Only the message that is unpredictable yet intriguing has its value as information. Hayles claims, “Maximum information is conveyed when there is a mixture of order and surprise, when the message is partly anticipated and partly surprising” (53). Ashbery’s poetry, though perplexing and enigmatic, always suggests a multiplicity of possible readings with a certain degree of expectability or predictability built into its structure. “My intention,” Ashbery says in an interview, “is to present the reader with a pleasant surprise, not an unpleasant one, not a nonsurprise ... ambiguity seems to be the same thing as happiness ... ambiguity supposes eventual resolution of itself, whereas certitude implies further ambiguity” (qtd. in Stitt 45).
Ashbery’s stochastic language creates the optimal level of the signalto- noise ratio, enhancing the detection of the information content of a signal.3 There is no doubt that lack of systematic organization of information in his poems leads to the frustration for those who walk through Ashbery’s texts like those who navigate the virtual space of the Internet in search of organic totality. We are puzzled and sometimes lost not finding any single plot or subject in Ashbery’s poems, but there is something that continuously motivates us to invent a plot in our minds. If it is not an emerging sense of a whole, it would only be the delight we have from moment to moment. In spite of the persistent ambiguities and random transitions in his poems, Vendler confesses, when her mind is tuned to “Ashbery’s wavelength, . . . everything at the symbolic level makes sense.” “When the frequencies meet,” she says, “the effect on me is Ashbery’s alone, and it is a form of trance” (
2Shannon himself frequently cautioned that his information theory was meant to apply only to certain technical situations, not to communication in general. Shannon does not consider the receiver’s mindset as part of the communication system. As an employee of AT&T, he was more interested in ‘transmitting’ message as accurately as possible, eliminating any unwanted intrusion in the channel. Shannon considers the uncertainty in the message at its source, whereas Ashbery considers it at the destination. However, Shannon’s theory of information provides an important insight that noise extends the receiver’s freedom of choice in selecting a message. Ashbery considers noise or uncertainty a desirable addition to meaning rather than interference. 3According to the Stochastic Resonance, in nonlinear systems, noise can increase the degree of coherence. In other words, noise can play a constructive role, enhancing the degree of order in a system. However, if the noise is too weak, so little signal can be detected, and if the noise is too strong or intense, the output is simply dominated by the noise, thus degrading detectability or information content and leading to a low signal?to?noise ratio. Between the two conditions, there exists an optimal value of the noise that maximizes the signal-to-noise ratio, increasing the degree of order and coherence in the system. Thus, an optimal amount of added noise results in the maximum enhancement. The maximum ratio of signal-to-noise as a function of noise intensity shows a ‘∩’ shape. See Moss et al. (268).
John Ashbery has greatly expanded the language of English poetry, employing random ambiguities of noise in his poetry, with an attempt to reach through linear language to express nonlinear realities. Although we can find no direct connection between Ashbery and Shannon’s theory of information, Ashbery might have sought to generate a system of communication in his poetry akin to Shannon’s revolutionary idea of information. To ensure proper operation, the message, for Ashbery and Shannon, has to remain a question of possible selection. Meaning owes as much, if not more, to chance association as it does to predetermined organizations of textual elements. Ashbery and Shannon discovered the paradoxical nature of information that the systems that look random and uncertain—the ones that are the least predictable—are likely carry more information or more possibility of meaning. In particular, stochastic resonance, the later development of the information theory, shows how communication functions meaningfully when communication channels lose most of the conventions that readers or receivers usually rely on to stabilize semantic content. The hypertextual network of verbal elements in Ashbery’s poetry provide an important clue to understanding his aesthetics of difficulty. Ashbery creates an assembling or interconnecting web of verbal elements in his poetry where an ambiguity of message, which constantly disturbs the reader’s expectation of meaning, can be transformed into information. Ashbery’s poetry can be criticized as a failure to communicate with the reader, but what he has been really up to is to find another way of communication. He does not attempt to dispel communication; his task is rather to subvert our ordinary understanding of meaning and to manage in engaging ways the processes of communication that are true and unique to our experience.