“Sitting at the Table” with Stein and Ashbery

“An Occasion” for Thin[g]king

Karin Roffman


John Ashbery’s 1971 ArtNews review of Four Americans in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition of Stein family collections, is the closest he ever came to spending an afternoon in Gertrude Stein’s company at 27 rue de Fleurus. He had arrived in Paris too late, nine years after Stein’s death in 1946, and this immersive show was a chance to experience a small part of what he had missed. His assessment of the riveting occasion led him not only to reflect anew on Stein’s achievement as a poet and a collector–something that he had been attempting in published and unpublished works for thirty years–but also to utter some of his most profound statements on what poetry is and why it matters. He opens the review by asserting that “Poets when they write about other artists always tend to write about themselves,” and concludes that Stein’s “achievement” as both poet and collector is “excitedly in doubt and thus alive.” In other words, focusing on Stein’s oeuvre enables Ashbery to explain how he thinks about poetry and things, and, in turn, his analysis offers a spirited defense of Stein’s domestic and literary projects as equally crucial to poetry.

Ashbery’s enthusiasm for Stein’s collecting instincts seemed initially to eclipse his appreciation for her poetry. Even Tender Buttons (1914), in fact, the work that incited his passion for Stein at sixteen after a friend pointed it out to him at the Deerfield Academy library, receives some neutral or negative comments. He mentions the “sureness of Gertrude’s taste as a collector” against the “unfathomable solidity of works like Tender Buttons.” He writes that in the book, “Stein’s method of composition is to make statements which cannot be disproved even when they may be ignored.” These claims suggest a not entirely pleasant experience with Stein, but Ashbery argues for a different approach to reading and thinking about her work through connecting her domestic and literary projects. He explains that Stein’s genius lies in her ability to create spaces for collections of things (paintings or sentences) to exist in new relations to each other: “She is building. Her structures may be demolished; what remains is a sense of someone’s having built.” Ashbery sees a direct connection between her collecting and poetic processes; she creates room for thinking about people and things.

Stein’s things have the effect on Ashbery that she had intended they should. In the early chapters of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), she suggests this reading of her life and work by offering examples of how being among her collections provokes a kind of thinking that she later calls, simply, “pleasure.” In an iconic passage about her home, she speaks to Matisse in the atelier with its floor-to-ceiling paintings when Alice arrives at the place for the first time. Stein then explains the room’s importance through a story about something that took place there a year earlier:

We were talking, she said, of a lunch party we had in here last year. We had just hung all the pictures and we asked all the painters. You know how painters are, I wanted to make them happy so I placed each one opposite his own picture, and they were happy so happy that we had to send out twice for more bread, when you know France you will know that that means that they were happy, because they cannot eat and drink without bread and we had to send out twice for bread so they were happy. Nobody noticed my little arrangement except Matisse and he did not until just as he left, and now he says it is a proof that I am very wicked, Matisse laughed and said, yes I know Mademoiselle Gertrude, the world is a theatre for you.

The apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus has, in fact, a separate dining room (we learn elsewhere in the book), but the atelier is where Stein arranges her things so that thinking happens. This space is where she makes both conversation and art; in addition to its carefully curated paintings, the room includes a “big renaissance table, on it a lovely inkstand, and at one end of it note-books neatly arranged” and “italian renaissance” chairs, particularly “a lovely high-backed one” that Stein sits on “near the stove.” Stein highlights her combination of youth (she is still a “Mademoiselle”) and expertise, as she is able to direct the experience of older men based on her instinctive sense of a potentially profound relationship between people and things. The narrative, written more than twenty years after the occasion she describes, gives evidence of her talent for arranging.

Walking around among her things at the exhibition inspired Ashbery to make a claim for poetry; he had suggested before that poetic space is inclusive, but he had never before said its capabilities for expansiveness were so great. He analyzes Stein’s invention of a series of paradoxical statements, or what he calls her “unshakable … affirmations,” to build her books, and asserts: “It is impossible to refute a statement made in a poem; poetry is by nature true and affords blanket protection to anything one wishes to say in it. Gertrude Stein is a poet in this sense.” There is nothing parodic about the tone of these sentences, yet the claims seem too grand. These encompassing statements that all “poetry is … true” or that it affords “blanket protection” to say anything demonstrate his ambitiousness for poetry, a desire that he feels he shares with Stein. She “is a poet in this sense,” he explains, suggesting that her works embody these ideals and further them.

Through Stein, Ashbery articulates, more boldly than he has ever done before, poetry’s subject. Six years earlier, in a recorded conversation with his friend, the poet Kenneth Koch, Ashbery said: “Poems are about people and things.” Standing in front of Stein’s collections, Ashbery could more fully explain his ideas about the “it is,” as he calls “the essence,” of art by demonstrating her talent for creating containers for people and things. A few months after his review of Stein, in an ArtNews piece on Willem de Kooning’s lithographs, Ashbery reiterates these ideas about a space for things, which his recent focus on Stein has enabled him to identify more clearly. Ashbery explains de Kooning’s artistry through a focus on his inclusion of ordinary things, reading some of his “strange” work, such as Table and Chairs, as creating an imaginative world that retains the resonances of physical things while enabling a new language and set of associations to exist as well: “de Kooning can, when he feels like it, invent what Wallace Stevens called ‘a completely new set of objects.’” De Kooning can invent this new structure for things because he “knows” them so well, or “as the French say, ‘like his pocket.’” Ashbery’s recent rereading of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is behind this analysis: “In one corner of the room was a large table on which were horseshoe nails and pebbles and little pipe cigarette holders which one looked at curiously but did not touch, but which turned out to be accumulations from the pockets of Picasso and Gertrude Stein.”

Ashbery had already stated, in his first published essay on Stein almost fifteen years earlier, that her imaginative world feels truer than the real one. In “The Impossible” (1957), his review-essay on Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation and other shorter poems, he praises her ability “to create a counterfeit of reality more real than reality.” She puts all sorts of people and things in her poetry, throwing in “an orange, a lilac, or an Albert to remind us that it really is the world, our world, that she has been talking about.” The result of these additions is something entirely new: “a completely new picture of reality, of the real reality of the poet.” This space contains “a hymn to possibility, a celebration of the fact that the world exists, that things can happen.” His appreciation for her “ambitious attempts” to forge a new reality in poetry in 1957 and the “achievement” of her vision in 1971 is so keen because he was in the midst of working out this balance between the real and imaginative world in art and life for himself.

By 1979, Ashbery was arguing that it is a “goofy fallacy” to expect that things in a poem are ever actually real, but this does not mean that real things do not appear in poems. In a completed but unsent letter to the Book Review editor of The New York Times, Ashbery criticizes a recent reviewer’s facile notion of reality:

To the Editor: I seldom notice anymore when a poetry reviewer drags my name into his review as a symptom of everything that is wrong with American poetry today. But Donald Davie, in his review of F.T. Prince’s Collected Poems, goes too far… . I must also say that I am not at all unhappy to be lumped with the likes of F.T. Prince, even if it means being labeled as one of those irresponsible mooncalves “who tell the truth about ‘the beyond,’ not the ‘here and now.’” Besides, Mr. Davie’s recommended alternative to such a course remains so nebulous that I would hardly know how to begin mending my ways. After congratulating himself for being a “coarse-grained” reader, he asks that poetry give him “precisely this earth, this sea, this sun, this wind.” Whose? His own? Prince’s? Another poet’s? The actual things themselves? What’s he talking about? In some quarters, William Carlos Williams’ line “No ideas but in things” has been misconstrued to mean that it is possible to incorporate real objects into poetry, that the poem is a sort of package which can be opened and its contents removed and savored. Mr. Davie’s desire to find this world and this sea on his plate seems almost to partake of this goofy fallacy.

Ashbery’s irritation at the reviewer for his desire to “incorporate real objects into poetry”–“this goofy fallacy”–is primarily an annoyance at the reviewer’s total misconception about what poetry is. It isn’t “a sort of package which can be opened and its contents removed and savored”; it does, however, include real things in combinations that, together, create something else: “an entirely new set of objects,” “a completely new reality,” or “a counterfeit of reality more real than reality,” as Ashbery puts it in thinking about Stein.

Ashbery, at least, knows that other writers, especially Stein, whose poetry developed in direct relation to her collections, share his thoughts about the relationship of poetry and things. From the beginning of his life as a writer, Ashbery was also a collector; these two passions developed in tandem around the age of thirteen. One of his earliest poems describes something he spotted in an antiques shop but could not afford to buy: “My head is iron with brass eyes and ears.” Diaries and letters from this period are full of descriptions of objects he likes: a set of antique teapots, an iron parrot doorknocker, ceramic bookends, to name just a few. He also painted still lifes as a student at Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery and as a member of the Art Club at Deerfield Academy and spent hours looking for (and at) objects to recapture on canvas. It is during this period scouring local antiques shops for still life materials (bottles, baskets) that Ashbery discovered Stein’s early poetry, which he immediately tried to copy by composing a pastiche (now lost). Nonetheless, the influence of Tender Buttons is probably most apparent in a brief poem he composed at Deerfield that focuses on a “bed” as a thing and concludes with the comment: “Whoever criticizes this poem adversely must admit that it is at least bizarre.” He was not sure about the poem he had written, but this addendum commends the structure he built for his ideas.

While Ashbery’s early poetry is full of real things, he was also uncertain about including them, and he became curious about how other poets have worked out a relationship between poetry and imagination for themselves. In a spring 1948 English course at Harvard, he submitted an essay on Andrew Marvell’s “The Mower to the Glow-Worms” that explains with remarkable clarity his own thinking about the relationship between things and poems at the time. He concludes the essay by stating that “in all great poets, we are released from the things of the world to find a new significance in the world of the imagination, though the separation from ‘things’ is never complete, and the higher meaning of the poem will invariably have its roots in them.” Although almost immediately after submitting the essay, he forgot that he had written it, these ideas reappeared soon afterward in Some Trees (1956). In a parallel story a few years later, the poet Ron Padgett, then a college student curious about the literary history of poetry and things, observed Ashbery’s thinking on the subject in a final class essay. He analyzes Ashbery’s use of the seemingly uninteresting word table to link the first and last poems in Some Trees. Noticing that initially “sparks” from a train “illuminate the table” and later the “table” “supports the book,” Padgett concludes: “Something happens which moves the poet away from doctrine and into poetry (though the two are of course not mutually exclusive),” which is another way to describe Ashbery’s desire to retain a sense of “things of the world” in “things … of the imagination.”

By the time Ashbery wrote his 1957 essay on Stein praising her ability to “create a counterfeit of reality more real than reality,” he had already thought deeply about this subject; still, he was not done. Although Ashbery wrote no long essays on Stein over the next decade, he frequently invoked her work and ideas, both directly and indirectly, in pieces on other artists. His immersion in the “profound original … original profundity” of her poetry, which can produce a “sudden inrush of clarity … an aesthetic experience,” remained with him. In 1959, he discovered that the French writer Raymond Roussel, who was famous for claiming never to have put a single real thing into his work, in fact, had included one object with which he grew up. In a review essay, Ashbery chronicles and then minimizes this revelation, concluding: “Doubtless the beauty of a work like this is directly linked to the obscurity of its author’s intentions; its charm is partly that of some antique mechanism constructed for a use that escapes us today.” In poems Ashbery wrote over the next decade, especially in longer works like “The Skaters” (from Rivers and Mountains, 1966), things like salt shakers, armchairs, and balloons appear quite often and usually with almost no description at all, a kind of flattening effect that makes them recognizable (as themselves) but also extremely strange (in the poem), as though we aren’t entirely sure if the name and the thing are the same. In a 1963 exhibition catalogue on the French artist Alain Jacquet, Ashbery quotes Stein (quoting Picasso) as she viewed a street scene with the painter and realized: “It is we who made it.” Ashbery’s poetry and art criticism build on his sense of her aesthetic “clarity,” illuminating her ability to reveal something true about life through the incorporation and transformation of things in art.

By the mid-1970s, Ashbery had developed a poetics of things. In a rare analytical interview, he explains how the naming of things plays a crucial role in keeping “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” (Houseboat Days, 1977) from becoming an allegory, a process that the poem both resists and desires. The poem observes this poetic process as it happens. At first, it names just a few real things: “Rumford’s Baking Powder,” an earring, and so on. Soon, however, there are many things, and the poem’s process of inclusion becomes so open that everything in literary and cinematic culture seems to avalanche into it, a tumbling that also produces statements of anxiety about the proliferation of things: a “fern-clogged waiting room,” a “magnetic storm,” and the question underneath: “How will it end?” Midway through the poem, the naming of things stops and analysis starts: “The allegory becomes unsnarled too soon.” The poem confronts its central question about the relationship between things and poetry by observing that things are too quickly becoming solely part of an imaginative landscape and losing their worldly roots. In a conversation with Peter Stitt a few years after he wrote this poem, Ashbery highlights this critical line of the poem: “The allegory coming unsnarled meaning that the various things that make it up are dissolving into a poetic statement, and that is something I feel that is both happening and that I don’t want to happen.” Shortly after writing the poem, Ashbery began searching for a home in which to put his things. In late 1978, he bought a Victorian house in Hudson, New York. One of Ashbery’s early purchases for the kitchen wall was an antique sign for Clabber Girl baking powder. Things began moving in multiple directions, from life to art and art to life; having and filling the house (the only one he would ever own) both deepened and reshaped his thinking about things.

As crucial as 27 rue de Fleurus was to Stein’s early poetics, Ashbery’s Hudson house was to his late poems. For both artists, in fact, the table becomes an especially good place for not only writing poems but furthering their ideas about poetry. Stein’s “A Plate” (Tender Buttons) is one early example of this, for the brief poem suggests the occasion of a dinner party through an intense focus on a plate:

A Plate.

            An occasion for a plate, an occasional resource is in buying and how soon does washing enable a selection of the same thing neater. If the party is small a clever song is in order.
            Plates and a dinner set of colored china. Pack together a string and enough with it to protect the center, cause a considerable haste and gather more as it is cooling, collect more trembling and not any even trembling, cause a whole thing to be a church.
            A sad size a size that is not sad is blue as every bit of blue is precocious. A kind of green a game in green and nothing flat nothing quite flat and more round, nothing a particular color strangely, nothing breaking the losing of no little piece.
            Cut cut in white, cut in white so lately. Cut more than any other and show it. Show it in the stem and in starting and in evening coming complication.
            A lamp is not the only sign of glass. The lamp and the cake are not the only sign of stone. The lamp and the cake and the cover are not the only necessity altogether.
            A plan a hearty plan, a compressed disease and no coffee, not even a card or a change to incline each way, a plan that has that excess and that break is the one that shows filling.

Although an ordinary thing, the plate’s appearance, because it is “an occasional resource,” signals that preparations for a dinner party are under way. Bought for just such “an occasion,” it needs first to be washed; “washing” makes the “same thing neater,” producing clean plates and platters for guests. Thoughts shift to the evening ahead: for a “small” party not to fail, there needs to be good music. Should the good china be used? If so, it will have to be carefully unpacked. The room becomes so still during this careful unwrapping that it almost feels like a church. Unfortunately, there are some broken pieces; nothing seems to be going quite right. Anxiety builds, not only about the “size” and “color” of the china, but also about the food, flowers, lighting and seating. “Evening” is near; problems are solved, food appears and is eaten; by the end, there is pleasurable “filling.”

Stein’s packed account of a dinner party is narrated through its record of thoughts provoked by a plate. Beginning with the contemplation of what to buy and use for “an occasion” and ending with the plate’s disappearance under an “excess” of food, her transcription of fragmented, interrupted thoughts about the dinner party produces a surprisingly encompassing account of the experience of the event. Once the plate has served its function and is no longer a focus of thought, the “button” ends. Each of Stein’s buttons, in fact, reveals a minutely realized portrait of moment-by-moment mental processes through a focus on a familiar thing. In an instant, everything that happens simultaneously–the arrival and departure of people, other objects being put down or picked up, conversations that take place, or nothing else at all–becomes peripheral. The mind experiences these peripheral happenings as linguistic and visual fragments, and Stein notates the mind’s processing of them through simple language conveyed with extreme precision. Each button is distinct (just as an “umbrella” is distinct from “a plate”), but its vocabulary also frequently recurs, demonstrating a shared experience of language as the mind filters thought. This repetitive, fragmented record of a mind’s encounter with things makes an implicit claim on being a true account of an experience.

Ashbery, too, found that the ordinary things with which we live when put into a poem were fertile provocations for building a new way of seeing the life around those things. The dining room in the Hudson house had the largest number of things in the house. Ashbery frequently put these things–plates, cups, glasses, saucers, brass candlesticks, vases, platters, covered dishes, blue glass, Majolica, ceramics–in poems, or used their names as unexpected adjectival descriptions, such as “blue glass sides” in “Merrily We Live” (Your Name Here, 2000) or the “ceramic day” in “Unctuous Platitudes” (Houseboat Days) and “Litany” (As We Know, 1979). The “table and chairs” in the Hudson house dining room, made from heavy oak and specifically designed for the space (in 1894), were not capable of being moved from the house–except into the imaginative space of a poem. “Paperwork” (Your Name Here), for example, ends with an image of a dinner party among things: “A motherly chimp leads us away / to a table overflowing with silverware and crystal, / crystal smudgepots so the old man could see through tears: // He is the one you ought to have invited.” Things are noted and named, and their roles in relation to people are central to the poem’s sense of humanity.

In “Sitting at the Table” (Commotion of the Birds, 2016), Stein’s “occasion” for a dinner party becomes Ashbery’s “situation” within one: “trying to figure out what is going on.” As people get up or sit down, move between the kitchen and this table, play music, eat sorbet, there is a sense of happening that the speaker observes and wonders at. There are efforts to continue with formalities–“As long as everyone signs the guest book”–so that one can keep thinking about other things: “the great dream can roll on.” The activity of things moving around is a provocation for the narrator’s stillness and provides an opportunity to view a familiar experience (sitting at a table with other people but also feeling apart from them) with unexpected clarity and sympathy.

In this final book of Ashbery’s career, Stein’s influence is still somehow fresh. The close connection between the two artists, even so long after Ashbery stopped writing new essays about her, is not surprising. In 1989, he republished his 1971 ArtNews piece in Reported Sightings and included many other reviews in the book that mention her influence. In 2004, he anchored his Selected Prose with his 1957 essay, now retitled “The Impossible: Gertrude Stein.” In 2011, Emily Setina and Susannah Hollister’s request to reprint this essay in Stanzas in Meditation: The Corrected Edition, prompted him to reread it. And in 2015, for one of Ashbery’s final public readings (at Pioneer Works), he listened with pleasure as Ben Lerner introduced him using only his published statements on Stein to describe his own life and work. Indeed, Ashbery’s affection for Stein–he writes “according to Gertrude” in his reviews (suggesting something akin to the description in her Autobiography of the delight with which Picasso also pronounces his friend’s name)–is one of the enduring qualities of his encounters with her work. Another is his openness to feeling “perplexed” by her, even in the midst of understanding her projects so sharply that he clearly explains them. For it is his willingness to remain in a state of doubt about what he knows that keeps her work–and his–“excitedly alive.”

Excerpts from John Ashbery’s unpublished and published materials are the property of the estate of John Ashbery and are used by arrangement with Georges Borchardt, Inc.

KARIN ROFFMAN is senior lecturer in humanities and associate director of public humanities at Yale.  Her most recent book is The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery’s Early Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017). She just completed John Ashbery’s Nest, a virtual tour and website documenting Ashbery’s Hudson, New York house (Yale DHLab, 2019).

image: Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein (detail), 1905-6, New York Metropolitan Museum Of Art