The Anaglyph: Notes

Notes to «The Anaglyph»
General notes

This work (the poem “The Anaglyph” here) initially resulted from a commission from a Toronto magazine to write an essay of any type on John Ashbery’s 1967 poem «Clepsydra», a long poem (253 lines), first published in book form in the 1977 volume Rivers and Mountains. Well, I had already written heaps on Ashbery — see this, for example — “Three John Ashberys”, on this site — and I didn’t want to repeat myself. So in response I “did an Ashbery” — I took the first word or two and also the last word or two of each line from John Ashbery’s poem, and wrote material of my own to fill each line out. [Ashbery had confessed — at a reading of his poetry at the University of Sydney, on the evening of 6 September in 1992 — to stealing the last words of each line of Swinburne’s double sestina “The Complaint of Lisa”. But he did come to the End of the World to make this confession, so perhaps it doesn’t count.]

A clepsydra is a water-driven clock, invented in Ancient Greece. An anaglyph is a drawn or photographic image, usually printed in red and bluish-green ink, that, when viewed through spectacles containing one bluish-green lens and one red lens, presents a three-dimensional image; that is, an image consisting of two superimposed and differently-coloured views of the same scene. Most of the following notes on «The Anaglyph» are adapted from the thesis mentioned above, in which I refer to myself in the third person. «The Anaglyph» is partly about its own process — that is, the deconstructing and reconstructing of a poem. It is also about Tranter’s relationship as a developing poet with John Ashbery and with Ashbery’s poetry.

The word ‘blazon’ gives us a clue to one of the poem’s effects (14.2–3. Deep within its complex innards a purple jewel / Exists as a blazon, rotating slowly…). In the essay on John Ashbery in his remarkable study of forty-one US poets, Alone With America, Richard Howard points out that Ashbery often buries a small ‘blazon’ in his poems, and quotes André Gide:

I like discovering in a work of art… transposed to the scale of the characters, the very subject of that work… Thus in certain paintings… a tiny dark convex mirror reflects the interior of the room where the scene painted occurs… the comparison with that method in heraldry which consists of putting a second blazon in the centre of the first, en abyme. ’ (pp.19–20)

That is, inside the poem is a reduced diagram of the poem itself, ‘a tiny mirror for the plot, or maybe narrative’, as Tranter writes, referring to just this device, in his poem ‘The Alphabet Murders’, written over thirty years ago. The buried presence of Ashbery’s poem — that is, the line-beginnings and line-endings from it — haunts «The Anaglyph» as a kind of fragmented and half-buried blazon.

The title of the poem itself, «The Anaglyph», is embodied in some of the poem’s ‘business’, for example in the line ‘their left and right perceptual fields, red and green’ (7.4). This hints at the anaglyph’s dependence on binocular vision. «The Anaglyph» is similar to Ashbery’s original poem ‘Clepsydra’, having the same number of lines and the same line beginnings and line endings, yet it has been written by a different author at a different time in a different society, coloured differently and seen from a slightly different point of view, and one which has one more layer of knowledge than the original. When Ashbery began work on ‘Clepsydra’ in the 1960s, nothing like it had existed before. When «The Anaglyph» was begun, its progenitor had been modifying the ideal order of the literary landscape, to use Eliot’s phrase, for three decades. ‘The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them.’ (Eliot, Tradition, 47–48) «The Anaglyph» depends on the earlier poem, and perceives the world partly through and from that poem’s viewpoint.

On the first page Ashbery’s poem is displaced, codified and rationalised. The title of Ashbery’s poem, ‘Clepsydra’, refers to an ancient Greek water-clock, which appears disguised twice in «The Anaglyph»:

Here behind the tiny horological waterfall
Drums amplify the fun, but only at nightfall, then just for a moment
Of horrible error as I clutch the wrong person’s hand. (3.18–20)

Later in the poem, ‘that tiny hydraulic clock’ (13.24).


The mention of Proust’s great novel (‘The way / Things fade away, les temps perdu seems to be the point / Of this rodomontade’ 10.12–14 [Note: “The” is missing in the printed edition: typo]) reminds us that the scents and flavours of his remembered life soaked into Proust’s writing. Over many years these changed from private, evanescent memories into private handwriting fixed on paper, then to corrected proofs, the text of which was reified into public print, and eventually entirely replaced Proust’s own actual life, as this poem seeks to replace its progenitor.


Galleys scribbled on (creatively improved) by Proust.

Favourite themes of Ashbery’s are also glancingly referred to: old schoolteachers, for example (‘the old school-teacher’s chief creed and belief’ 4.18) and his use of ornate words harvested from the dictionary: ‘Those crowded riverine cities’ (6.3) reminds us of Ashbery’s title ‘Those Lacustrine Cities’ — that is, cities built beside or on a lake. The phrase ‘ashes and diamonds and nourishing food’ (6.17) obliquely refers to the title of the 1958 Polish movie Ashes and Diamonds directed by Andrzej Wajda, based on the novel by Jerzy Andrzejewski. Ashbery had the nickname ‘Ashes’ bestowed on him in that decade by his poet friends Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara. In the movie, a poem by the nineteenth-century Polish poet Cyprian Norwid is quoted:

So often, are you as a blazing torch with flames
of burning rags falling about you flaming,
you know not if flames bring freedom or death.
Consuming all that you must cherish
if ashes only will be left, and want Chaos and tempest
Or will the ashes hold the glory of a star-like diamond
The Morning Star of everlasting triumph.
       — Wikipedia: <>

Ashbery himself, as the maimed father-figure, makes a brief appearance to protest what has happened to his poem: ‘From Rochester he came hence, / A writ of Cease and Desist clenched in his teeth’ (9.12–13). Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York State, in 1927.

Speaking of father-figures, the distancing yet ligaturing effect «The Anaglyph» seeks to enact between Tranter the translator and Ashbery the originator is addressed by Lacan:

Rather, the subject would now find him­self alienated in a symbolic system which he shares with others. That system structures the human uncon­scious, and communication with the other can now be enacted through the shifting positions of signifiers in a system of symbolic exchange. The self is still an ap­propriated self, but what is appropriated is language as the other, and not an ideal but alienated image of an individual self. (In the resolution of the Oedipus complex, this would involve moving from a specular rivalry with the father, in which the child seeks to take the father’s place, to an assumption of the function of the father and, most fundamentally, of the symbolic father who, as Law, is that which makes possible all symbolic operations.) (Bersani, summarising Lacan, 115–16)

One final function of the poetic father is to license the son to take his place. It is worth noting that Tranter has stated that he asked Ashbery’s permission before embarking on this disfigurative exercise: ‘After wrestling with [«Clepsydra»] for a while, I felt that it needed demolishing and rebuilding, and — with Mr Ashbery’s permission — that is what I did.’ (Feints 29)

John Ashbery, Sydney, 1992. Photo John Tranter

Perhaps to empower Ashbery as the lawgiver, other elder poets are downgraded. The most common thematic reference in «The Anaglyph» is a series of references to bear hunting, the first of which is ‘a hunter in the dim mirror killing a bear’ (4.12). Poet Galway Kinnell was born in the same year as John Ashbery, and also lives in New York City. Daniel Schenker says

In one of his [Kinnell’s] best known poems, “The Bear,” an Eskimo hunter stalks a polar bear who eventually succumbs to the sharpened bone coiled in the hunter’s bait. When the hunter comes upon the bear’s carcass he eats voraciously of the animal’s flesh as we would expect. But instead of then abandoning the carcass or considering its other uses, the hunter climbs into the body and life and death of the bear. The object of the hunt thus becomes not the mere domination of the bear by the hunter, but an effort to acquire an understanding of what it’s like to be something other than oneself. As if to validate his attempt to identify with the other, the hunter is granted a vision of spring at the end of the poem as geese come trailing up the flyway and a mother bear tends to a litter of new-born cubs.

Kinnell’s poem contains an explicit comparison between bear-killing and poem-making, where his Eskimo hunter ponders thus: ‘… the rest of my days I spend / wandering: wondering / what, anyway, / was that sticky infusion, that rank flavour of blood, that poetry, by which I lived?’ A hard question to answer, for an aboriginal American, from inside the corpse of a dead bear.

This seems light-years away from Ashbery’s modus operandi, and in «The Anaglyph» the business with the dead bear is perhaps a ‘feint’, an example of what poetry is not, except in a willed personal myth drenched in contemporary bourgeois American nostalgie de la tundra.

In «The Anaglyph» there are eight further references to Mr Kinnell’s ill-fated bear: ‘inhabiting a reputation’ (5.10), ‘the story of an Eskimo inside an eviscerated bear like this?’ (6.12), ‘the fact that he “inhabited” the smelly bear-skin… ’ (6.13), ‘clambering inside an animal’ (6.18), ‘that animal’s demise’ (8.6), ‘taxidermy at midnight’ (8.7), ‘a polar bear falling over, and the hunter’ (10.11), and a final dismissive if syntactically ambiguous aperçu: ‘He read poems about killing large animals to keep awake / On the tepid waters of café society.’ (12.20–13.1)

Other images deal with Ashbery’s poetry as an influence and refer more sensibly to the process of rewriting as redesign or rebuilding: ‘this project, I admit that / It is like gutting then refurbishing a friend’s apartment.’ (5.2–3) ‘returning to my sources, raking through my prototypes’ (5.7), and ‘blueprint is found and seems just right’ (5.8).

Not that «The Anaglyph» is loaded with a freight of too-serious literary endeavour: that would betray Ashbery as much as Tranter, and of course seriousness in itself has no literary value, nor has its cousin, sincerity. As Harold Bloom reminds us, Oscar Wilde remarked that “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.”

[See: Oscar Wilde: Gilbert, in The Critic as Artist, pt. 2, published in Intentions (1891).]

Though Bloom, too lazy or too confident to check his sources, expresses the concept as ‘Oscar Wilde sublimely remarked that “all bad poetry is sincere”.’ (Bloom, xix)

There are lighter moments, and many of them. For example: ‘the fireworks, they / Ended with a fizzing Roman candle sound that frightened the guest who was / Intended to rescue Gertie McDowell from that dirty old man.’ (8.1–3) In 1918 the US Postal Authorities burned copies of the Little Review carrying the instalment of James Joyce’s Ulysses in which young Gertie McDowell exposes her drawers to the gaze of masturbating Leopold Bloom in the dusk while roman candles fizz and explode in the sky. Joyce’s passage parodies the style of women’s magazine stories of the time:

And then a rocket sprang and bang shot blind and O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lively! O so soft, sweet, soft! (Joyce 477)

Exclaiming over roman candles must be a universal phenomenon. Jack Kerouac, in On The Road, published in 1957, and seemingly unaware of Ulysses, writes:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’. (Kerouac 8)

Notes in Detail

Page 3. «The Anaglyph» 4.2. the sky over Twenty-second Street, but / The sky leans nonchalantly against the coop — I mean “co-op” — about / As graceful as a cowboy leaning on a chicken co-op — I mean “coop”] John Ashbery’s apartment is in a building that bears a large vertical sign advertising “COOPS”, or co-operatively-owned apartments. The vertical alignment of the word ‘coops’ does not allow for hyphens. See the note to ‘Ninth Avenue’ below.     ¶ 7.11. The assurance Baron Corvo had an excess of, a crowing assurance] The eccentric writer Frederick Rolfe (1860–1913) adopted the pseudonym ‘Baron Corvo’ (along with several others at different times). The Corvidae are a family of birds including crows, ravens and jays; corvine: crow-like.     ¶ 8.15. presented in a Potemkin-Village spirit] Potemkin-Village, a pretentiously showy or imposing façade intended to mask or divert attention from an embarrassing or shabby fact or condition. 1935–40; after Prince Potëmkin. “Catherine’s [the Great’s] tour of the south in 1787 was a triumph for Potëmkin, for he disguised all the weak points of his administration — hence the apocryphal tale of his erecting artificial villages to be seen by the empress in passing.” (Encyclopaedia Britannica Deluxe edition 2004 CD ROM).     ¶ 8.16. a vast electrical disturbance] The phrase comes from an early line of John Ashbery’s: ‘My child, I love any vast electrical disturbance.’ (Some Trees, Corinth 20) ] and was used again in ‘Electrical Disturbance: A dramatic interlude’, which was published in the thesis, but not in this book.     ¶ 9.8. coffee and a Strega] Strega (Italian: witch ) is a liqueur. In Frank O’Hara’s poem ‘The Day Lady Died’:

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday [… .]
and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue…

    ¶ 9.8. Il Miglior Fabbro] Not in fact a New York café, bar or restaurant, though perhaps it should be. This phrase was T S Eliot’s dedication of The Waste Land to Pound: ‘the better maker’ or ‘the finer craftsman’, which is what Dante calls Arnaut Danièl, an Occitan troubadour of the twelfth century and the inventor of the difficult sestina poem form, a favourite of Ashbery’s.     ¶ 9.20. the pearl-handled revolver] A radio play device: a common name for any clumsy explanatory dialogue. In an archetypal radio play, to identify the villain to the radio audience, who are ‘blind’, and where the type of gun the villain is holding is vital in identifying the real murderer, typical dialogue ran thus: “Carruthers, you swine, put down that pearl-handled revolver!”]     ¶ 10.6. Not likely to allow me to escape the whirligig of voracious time.] Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, (act five, scene one): ‘Clown: … And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.’     ¶ 11.18. a canal reflecting its own anagram] Psychoanalytic philosopher Jacques Lacan developed a theory of the ‘mirror stage’ of ego development. Reflections and mirrors are of course symbolic of the central process this poem enacts. Canal is an anagram of Lacan, whose name appears in another mirror later in the thesis.     ¶ 12.7. a step or two away from them] Frank O’Hara again. His 1956 poem «A Step Away From Them» contains the lines:

It’s my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-coloured
cabs. [… .] First
Bunny died, then John Latouche,
then Jackson Pollock. But is the
earth as full as life was full, of them? [… .]
A glass of papaya juice
and back to work. My heart is in my
pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.

    ¶ 12.11. Leading to a rowboat mounted in a park] From John Forbes, «Monkey’s Pride»:

I’ll be employed on a rowing boat
mounted in a park,
the one the avenues lead to
because society has elected me / to decorate
its falling apart with a useless panache [… ]

    ¶ 12.18. Infant mortality was declining as aspirin consumption increased.] Though the two trends are not directly related, each is a product of scientific advances occurring over the same period:

In 1897, scientists at the drug and dye firm Bayer began investigating acetylsalicylic acid as a less-irritating replacement for standard common salicylate medicines. By 1899, Bayer had dubbed this drug ‘Aspirin’ and was selling it around the world. Aspirin’s popularity grew over the first half of the twentieth century, spurred by its effectiveness in the wake of Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, and aspirin’s profitability led to fierce competition and the proliferation of aspirin brands and products. (Wikipedia)

Starting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a precipitous decline in infant mortality was observed in the United States. Economic growth, improved nutrition, new sanitary measures, and advances in knowledge about infant care all contributed to this decline in infant mortality. (Lee, Kwang-Sun. ‘Infant Mortality Decline in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries: the role of market milk.’ Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, Volume 50, Number 4, Autumn 2007, pp. 585–602)

    ¶ 13.19. Ninth Avenue] John Ashbery’s New York apartment abuts Ninth Avenue. See the note to ‘Twenty-second Street’, above.     ¶ 13.22. to turn your back on Europe] As a young man, John Ashbery lived in Europe for a decade from 1955 to 1965 — indeed, one of his poems is titled ‘Europe’, though it is mainly about the eponymous Paris metro stop and its neighbourhood — then returned to live in the United States. ‘Clepsydra’ was ‘one of the last poems Ashbery wrote while he was in France. The poem was composed in the Spring of 1965… ’ (Shoptaw 83). The unusual number of French phrases and names in «The Anaglyph» also suggest this French connection: Salon des Refusés, Buffon, Paris, eau-de-cologne, la vie littéraire, longeurs, Mallarmé’s abyss, Valéry, appliqué aperçus, puissant, les temps perdu, simple entendre.     ¶ 14.17. Your well wrought urn] Ashbery’s oeuvre; the reference is to both the noted critical study of poems by Donne, Wordsworth, Keats, and Eliot, The Well Wrought Urn by Cleanth Brooks, and to John Keats’ poem ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, which ends: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.’