Ashbery, John. The Tennis Court Oath: A Book of Poems. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University
New York School poet John Ashbery writes, arguably, his edgiest collection with The Tennis Court Oath. The title poem opens the book with a series of fragmented lines that offer a strange syntactical and semantic experience; for example, the poet writes: “The person. pleaded—‘have more of these/ not stripes on the tunic—or the porch chairs/ will teach you about mean—what it means’” (12). Earlier in the poem, the speaker references a “mystery you don’t want surrounded the real” (11); one can, quite rightly, read this as the speaker understanding his audience’s trouble with comprehending obscure passages and their desire, perhaps, for a less rigorous text. The center-piece of the collection, no doubt, is the twenty-two paged “Europe,” divided into one hundred and eleven sections. While the piece contains mostly small, fragmented lines such as “A wave of nausea--/ numerals” (64), which is the entirety of section two, other sections contain prose poems, and in one instance, a matrix with alternating boxes that contain white space or individual words. While readers can “piece together secret messages contained in” these poems (71), the poet’s interest in Abstract Expressionism, collage, cut-ups, and other European, avant-techniques challenges the reader to experience “the sense of the words…/ with backward motion” (46), the “words” being “passions…divided into tiniest units/ And of these many are lost, and those that remain are given at nightfall” (57); or, stated differently, words are “divided” into the smallest syntactical “units” possible and arranged in a new, less representational order, sometimes even by chance operations. While semantics or communication may be “lost,” those aspects of language that “remain” are unique and, more often than not, wholly new; thus, words signal an affinity with “nightfall” and its corresponding difficulty of apprehending objects at the onset of darkness. Other poems exhibiting curious aesthetic features are “To The Same Degree,” wherein the poet divides the poem into two vertical columns of fragmented sentences that can be read either horizontally or vertically, and the piece “Idaho,” which employs liberal use of white space, both prose and lyric modes, a highly disjunctive narrative about “Biff” and “Carol,” and excessive punctuation. Regarding this final characteristic, Ashbery sometimes writes: “##############” or “???????????????????????” (91-2) within the fabric of the text. To this extent, the string of characters forces readers to engage these portions of the poem within a visual field, as opposed to a linguistic or temporal field. Overall, the collection concerns itself with stretching language past the limits of representation and its traditional usage. Ashbery claims as much when he writes: “you…will want something other than nauseating clear sea framed in window…the loggia in the picture. You see well, the perverted things you wanted gone” (54).