June 19, 2005
What interesting literary presentations I’ve been to recently. Yesterday Hanna and I took the train out to meet up with Scott in South Jersey. We went to a small, carceral structure in Ocean City where lawn furniture was set up in an arts and crafts studio. There we heard John Ashbery read to a crowd that was still ambulatory but of a noticeably different demographic than is the grad student/junior faculty crowd. The motto of the Ocean City Arts Center seems to be “Life is short … the arts extend it!”
Today, Hanna and I went to a “A Potable Joyce,” a show at the Rosenbach Library and Museum performed by actors and employing some shadow puppets. The performance tells (some of) the story of the Odyssey, Ulysses, and Joyce’s writing and publishing Ulysses. The Nausicaa episode was elided – probably a good move, as there were several audience members around age three.
Let us gloss over the the painful nature of some of the question and answer session in Ocean City, the lack of the traditional cheap white wine at the reception afterwards (Ocean City is dry), and the similarly painful nature of some of the tour of the Rosenbach that we went on after Joyce performance – not to mention the curious nature of the Rosenbach itself, which is a sort of temple to two wealthy collectors who amassed an impressive collection of books and manuscripts along with some nice furniture.
The truth is, both of these events were really quite wonderful experiences: the reading itself and the Joyce-inspired puppetry were great, and the curious contexts only seemed to enhance them. I last heard Ashbery read in 1997 at MIT; I know his work much better now and appreciated even more the sounds of the many poems he read from his first book, Some Trees, and the way language and thought play in those, in “Worsening Situation” (from Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, and in the two poems he read from his latest book, Where Shall I Wander, “Ignorance of the Law is No Excuse” and “Interesting People of Newfoundland.” However difficult it is to explicate Ashbery’s early poems – they are notoriously difficult and inspire “How to read John Ashbery” guides in the best case and flustered attempts at student papers in the worst case – they really aren’t hard to enjoy. The attentive audience, which didn’t seem to be loaded with advanced degrees in English literature, seemed to agree.
There was also something reassuring about seeing three-year-olds and their parents engaging in the process of reinventing ancient mythology as they learned about one of the most challenging and esoteric 20th century novels. The show, in addition to being fun and clever, also did a pretty good job of explaining some of the correspondences that Joyce drew, the way in which he transformed myth, the styles in which he wrote some of the different chapters, and even the difficulty he had in getting Ulysses published.
Ashbery may not have known that his book would lead him to wander out to Ocean City and moor there for an afternoon, but I was glad to be among the pilgrims and locals who turned out, lining up for him to sign their books, snapping photos of themselves next to the famous poet as if he were an attraction on the boardwalk. It’s embarassing, sure, but I could live with a country that’s only as bad as that.