The Small Words

In his in his recent New Yorker review of John Ashbery’s new book, Breezeway, Dan Chiasson brings up a central concern of this blog, vagueness, and its relationship to Ashbery’s use of “the little words,” such as prepositions and conjunctions. 

I love how incisively Chaisson describes a central aspect of JA’s style(s): “The style works partly by taking phrases whose contours already exist in the mind… and substituting near-misses.” I’ve read entire essays on Ashbery that have managed to say less than that sentence. He continues, perhaps less persuasively:

Ashbery’s style prizes such mistakes and misapprehensions, as though looking for the word on the tip of the tongue. William James described consciousness as the “alternation of flights and perchings,” suggesting that we tend to overvalue the “perchings,” the nouns or the primary verbs in a sentence that steal the spotlight from the little words, like “in,” “and,” “but,” “or,” and “of.” It was James, a profound influence on Ashbery, who coined the term “stream of consciousness,” and who insisted on what he called a “reinstatement of the vague and inarticulate to its proper place in our mental life.” James’s “flights” and in-between zones find, in “Breezeway,” a breezeway….

The leap to James is a bit Ashberean itself in its collage-like abruptness, but I take his point: marked by articles, prepositions, and other “little words,”  these “in-between zones” are where we find the slippages/derailings of meaning we’ve come to expect from an Ashbery poem. They’re the fold in the exquisite corpse page. Chiasson implies (but doesn’t say) that the little words are a source of this essential vagueness.

The “little words” fascinate me. Stretched by centuries of make-do use, they are capable of more ambiguity than the slipperiest noun. Look up “of” and you’ll see what I mean. The difficulty we have defining such words tells us something about them: that they are, almost paradoxically, words that articulate the inarticulate (see James, above), enacting relationships and meanings that are so embedded in our understanding of the world that we rarely need to state them outright–we embody them. They’re so essential, they’re invisible.

Enthusiasm for the small words is something of a tradition in American poetry. William James’s former student Gertrude Stein said “I like to write with prepositions and conjunctions and articles and verbs and adverbs but not with nouns and adjectives.” She had this to say about articles:

But an article an article remains as a delicate and a varied something and anyone who wants to write with articles and knows how to use them will always have the pleasure that using something that is varied and alive can give.

The small words find their strongest advocates in the poets working in the Williams/Objectivist tradition: Zukovsky loved what he also called “the little words”—especially “a” and “the”— as did his friend George Oppen:

… the words
would   with   and   take on substantial
meaning   handholds   footholds

Robert Creeley:

There, you say, and
there, and and

just so.

(from “To W.C.W”)

However, for all that, I’m still a bit murky on how the James cited by Chaisson relates to Ashbery. Ashbery’s vagueness, if we’re going to call it that, is self-evident, and his pronouns, of course, are legendary, but as for other small words… . I’m just not sure. So I’m going to dip into Breezeway again. Should I find compelling evidence, either way, I’ll report back.  

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