Flow Chart John Ashbery 1991 In

the book-length poem Flow Chart, John ashbery synthesizes themes typical of his decades-long career: the instability of meaning and of the objective "I," the poet's struggle with his literary predecessors, and mortality. Flow Chart especially laments the end of the poet's role as spokesperson for an organized tribe. The aging poet sets himself adrift on a river of language that streams luxuriously and maddeningly toward no end at all, "the plaited lines that extend / like a bronze chain into eternity."

Flow Chart can be read as a postmodern travel narrative. The poem alludes, for example, to the story of Noah's Ark and refers throughout to the theme of "beginning / and something also in the way of returning," thus placing itself within the context of epic travel narratives, including The Odyssey, The Iliad, and Dante's Divine Comedy. Unlike its predecessors, however, there is no closure offered in Flow Chart, as the "river god" never returns to anything resembling home. Most important, the travel that takes place in Flow Chart is not so much in the physical world as it is within the interior world of language, meditation, and narcissistic reverie.

Why is this long poem called Flow Chart? A flow chart is a diagram that charts the operations of a sequence of events. Thus one can imagine the poem charting the course of a consciousness moving on a continually eddying river of language. The metaphor of the flow chart also reestablishes Ashbery's connection with his community of readers, most of whom "have charted his development as a writer with something of the systematic organization of a flow chart" (Mora-marco 40).

The knowledgeable reader of Ashbery's "life work" will recognize that, in Flow Chart as in his earlier texts, Ashbery is fascinated by what constitutes authorship. Ashbery as an authorial persona appears only to assert that a conception of Ashbery as a reliable presence is impossible: "I called John but he couldn't come to the phone." The author as the determiner of a poem's "meaning" is unavailable here—the reader, holding a phone with no one on the other end, imposes meaning on the text. Ashbery, aware that he does not have the power to transmit a specific meaning via his poetry, acknowledges the crucial role that an almost arbitrary, highly subjective interpretation plays in determining what a poem is about. There is no privileged meaning, as every potential reading of Flow Chart multiplies according to how many times one reads or speaks the poem.

The shaky quality of meaning as it is transmitted through language is directly connected to Ashbery's awareness of writing within a tradition, especially a poetic tradition, in which truth is imagined as a real possibility as opposed to merely another social and linguistic construct. The "anxiety of influence"—critic Harold Blooms theory that states successful writing is determined by an individual poet's heroic rejection of a literary predecessor, or "father" figure—is in effect throughout Flow Chart. Ashbery comically acknowledges Bloom, an early and vocal Ashbery supporter, in the line "Should he have been feeling more anxiety? Nah," and he then proceeds to incorporate and struggle with themes specific to predecessor poets.

Poets, including William Carlos Williams, Walt Whitman, William Blake, and John Keats, are alluded to throughout Flow Chart. Whitman (author of Leaves of Grass), in particular, is evoked, yet all of the many references Ashbery makes to Whitman's grass insist on portraying the grass as withered. The elegiac tone, while tempered with humor, is unmistakable.

Referring to Whitmans declaration in Leaves of Grass that the poet "contain[s] multitudes," Ashbery asks, "But if all space is contained within me, then /

there is no place for me to go, I am not even here, and now." The act of assertion for Ashbery is, at the same time, an act of negation. For the postmodern poet, the capacious Whitmanic acts of tallying and encompassing are transformed into ones of gesturing and redistributing. The democratic impulse in Whitman is, in Ashbery, a failed experiment.

Ultimately, though, Flow Chart is as much an elegy for the death of what might be called a "collective spirit" as it is an elegy for the aging body. As James McCorkle recognizes in discussing the role of subjectivity in Flow Chart, "The awareness of mortality . . . surfaces throughout the poem. . . . The ambiguity of the 'you' persists in the passage from Flow Chart, but what it offers is not a strict dispersal or indeterminacy of identities but an inclusiveness or community that faces suffering and a crisis of hope" (111). Flow Chart manifests the universal preoccupation with mortality. The poem thus manages, in the best Whitmanic sense, to contradict itself. Even as it muddies the notion that there is a stable author writing the text, Flow Chart nevertheless succeeds in foregrounding itself as a work specific to an aging poet.

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