john ashbery’s “daffy duck in hollywood”

" . . . While I

Abroad through all the coasts of dark destruction seek

Deliverance for us all, think in that language: its

Grammar, though tortured, offers pavillions

At each new parting of the ways."

Daffy Duck In Hollywood  


Something strange is creeping across me.

La Celestina has only to warble the first few bars

Of "I Thought about You" or something mellow from

Amadigi di Gaula for everything–a mint-condition can

Of Rumford’s Baking Powder, a celluloid earring, Speedy

Gonzales, the latest from Helen Topping Miller’s fertile

Escritoire, a sheaf of suggestive pix on greige, deckle-edged

Stock–to come clattering through the rainbow trellis

Where Pistachio Avenue rams the 2300 block of Highland

Fling Terrace. He promised he’d get me out of this one,

That mean old cartoonist, but just look what he’s

Done to me now! I scarce dare approach me mug’s attenuated

Reflection in yon hubcap, so jaundiced, so déconfit

Are its lineaments–fun, no doubt, for some quack phrenologist’s

Fern-clogged waiting room, but hardly what you’d call

Companionable. But everything is getting choked to the point of

Silence. Just now a magnetic storm hung in the swatch of sky

Over the Fudds’ garage, reducing it–drastically–

To the aura of a plumbago-blue log cabin on

A Gadsden Purchase commemorative cover. Suddenly all is

Loathing. I don’t want to go back inside any more. You meet

Enough vague people on this emerald traffic-island–no,

Not people, comings and goings, more: mutterings, splatterings,

The bizarrely but effectively equipped infantries of


Vegetal jacqueries, plumed, pointed at the little

White cardboard castle over the mill run. "Up

The lazy river, how happy we could be?"

How will it end? That geranium glow

Over Anaheim’s had the riot act read to it by the

Etna-size firecracker that exploded last minute into

A carte du Tendre in whose lower right-hand corner

(Hard by the jock-itch sand-trap that skirts

The asparagus patch of algolagnic nuits blanches) Amadis

Is cozening the Princesse de Cleves into a midnight

   micturition spree

On the Tamigi with the Wallets (Walt, Blossom, and little

Sleezix) on a lamé barge "borrowed" from Ollie

Of the Movies’ dread mistress of the robes. Wait!

I have an announcement! This wide, tepidly meandering,

Civilized Lethe (one can barely make out the maypoles

And châlets de nécessitê on its sedgy shore)

   leads to Tophet, that

Landfill-haunted, not-so-residential resort from which

Some travellers return! This whole moment is the groin

Of a borborygmic giant who even now

Is rolling over on us in his sleep. Farewell bocages,

Tanneries, water-meadows. The allegory comes unsnarled

Too soon; a shower of pecky acajou harpoons is

About all there is to be noted between tornadoes. I have

Only my intermittent life in your thoughts to live

Which is like thinking in another language. Everything

Depends on whether somebody reminds you of me.

That this is a fabulation, and that those "other times"

Are in fact the silences of the soul, picked out in

Diamonds on stygian velvet, matters less than it should.

Prodigies of timing may be arranged to convince them

We live in one dimension, they in ours. While I

Abroad through all the coasts of dark destruction seek

Deliverance for us all, think in that language: its

Grammar, though tortured, offers pavillions

At each new parting of the ways. Pastel

Ambulances scoop up the quick and hie them to hospitals.

"It’s all bits and pieces, spangles, patches, really; nothing

Stands alone. What happened to creative evolution?"

Sighed Aglavaine. Then to her Sélysette: "If his

Achievement is only to end up less boring than the others,

What’s keeping us here? Why not leave at once?

I have to stay here while they sit in there,

Laugh, drink, have fine time. In my day

One lay under the tough green leaves,

Pretending not to notice how they bled into

The sky’s aqua, the wafted-away no-color of regions supposed

Not to concern us. And so we too

Came where the others came: nights of physical endurance,

Or if, by day, our behavior was anarchically

Correct, at least by New Brutalism standards, all then

Grew taciturn by previous agreement. We were spirited

Away en bateau, under cover of fudge dark.

It’s not the incomplete importunes, but the spookiness

Of the finished product. True, to ask less were folly, yet

If he is the result of himself, how much the better

For him we ought to be! And how little, finally,

We take this into account! Is the puckered garance satin

Of a case that once held a brace of dueling pistols our

Only acknowledging of that color? I like not this,

Methinks, yet this disappointing sequel to ourselves

Has been applauded in London and St. Petersburg. Somewhere

Ravens pray for us." The storm finished brewing. And thus

She questioned all who came in at the great gate, but none

She found who ever heard of Amadis,

Nor of stern Aureng-Zebe, his first love. Some

They were to whom this mattered not a jot: since all

By definition is completeness (so

In utter darkness they reasoned), why not

Accept it as it pleases to reveal itself? As when

Low skyscrapers from lower-hanging clouds reveal

A turret there, an art-deco escarpment here, and last perhaps

The pattern that may carry the sense, but

Stays hidden in the mysteries of pagination.

Not what we see but how we see it matters; all’s

Alike, the same, and we greet him who announces

The change as we would greet the change itself.

All life is but a figment; conversely, the tiny

Tome that slips from your hand is not perhaps the

Missing link in this invisible picnic whose leverage

Shrouds our sense of it. Therefore bivouac we

On this great, blond highway, unimpeded by

Veiled scruples, worn conundrums. Morning is

Impermanent. Grab sex things, swing up

Over the horizon like a boy

On a fishing expedition. No one really knows

Or cares whether this is the whole of which parts

Were vouchsafed–once–but to be ambling on’s

The tradition more than the safekeeping of it. This mulch for

Play keeps them interested and busy while the big,

Vaguer stuff can decide what it wants–what maps, what

Model cities, how much waste space. Life, our

Life anyway, is between. We don’t mind

Or notice any more that the sky is green, a parrot

One, but have our earnest where it chances on us,

Disingenuous, intrigued, inviting more,

Always invoking the echo, a summer’s day.

Bookseller Photo 

…This style of chaotic juxtaposition produces an effect of agitation and urgency, which in turn is continually undercut by the humor generated in the collision of elevated language with the mundane. Daffy Duck’s voice seems consistent in its cycle of inflation by allusion to chivalric romance, followed by farcical deflation, while at the same time these contrasts seem far too great to subsume under any notion of a coherent speaker. The title, "Daffy Duck in Hollywood," in its specification of speaker and situation, promises a dramatic monologue, but what the poem delivers cannot be brought together within [Cleanth] Brooks and [Robert Penn] Warren’s notions of "fundamental character and situation" [as outlined in Understanding Poetry, the fundamental textbook of New Critical reading].

The poem’s contrasts reflect those of its source, which is not so much Tex Avery’s 1938 cartoon "Daffy Duck in Hollywood" as Chuck Jones’s celebrated "Duck Amuck" of 1953. In "Duck Amuck," Daffy swashbuckles onto the screen wielding a rapier, as if to reprise his 1950 role, "The Scarlet Pumpernickel." The setting, without Daffy’s noticing it first, shifts to a barnyard, where, after an ineffectual attempt to apprise the cartoonist of the problem, Daffy chooses to switch rather than fight, changes to overalls, and throws a hoe over his shoulder. Throughout, the scene keeps shifting in this fashion, with Daffy always a step behind. … Ashbery’s character is at the mercy of disconcertingly rapid changes of scene which leave the speaker disoriented and strange to himself, unable to face his own "reflection." Yet, at about its middle, the frenetic motion of the poem gives way to a moment of syntactical calm:

I have

Only my intermittent life in your thoughts to live

Which is like thinking in another language.

If the poem, to this point, has embodied the predicament of the mind assaulted by the chaos of discourses that compete for priority in our culture, here it stands back to reflect on that predicament. … While … marginalization seems potentially liberating, a way to "step free" of the concerns of the self, … it is shaded with some of the pathos generated by the most extremely marginalized character in English poetry, Milton’s Satan, as Daffy continues:

While I

Abroad through all the coasts of dark destruction seek

Deliverance for us all, think in that language …

On first thought Daffy seems to get the worst of the comparison these lines propose. But if the distance between the earlier and the contemporary culture hero allows us to measure the diminishment of our own civilization in comparison to Milton’s, it also invests with a certain grandeur the duck’s struggle to prevail against the shocks and indignities inflicted by an unseen tormentor, a tormentor who is in fact his creator as well. It’s by no means certain whether the joke here is on him or on us.

… [Shetley cites from the last six lines of the poem.] This closing section sports a number of inversions (e. g., "bivouac we") reminiscent of the verbal habits of the Daffy Duck voice, yet this ending seems very different in tone from the broadly ironic opening. How has this voice entered the poem? I propose that the often highly conventional-seeming endings of Ashbery’s poems are enabled by the fracturing and displacement of voice – of which "Daffy Duck in Hollywood" is a particularly baroque example; Ashbery is able to employ highly traditional forms of lyric closure because the play of voices in the poems prevents these passages from being read directly as expressive utterances by the poet – saves them, that is, from sentimentality.

Again and again, even the most discontinuously organized of Ashbery’s poems arrive at some traditional form of elegiac terminus: a phrase or image that seems to sum up the poem as a whole, a natural image, an epigrammatic reflection, or a gesture that suggests a return to beginnings: [Shetley cites here, among other passages, the concluding 4 lines to "Hop o’ My Thumb."

–from Vernon Shetley, "John Ashbery’s Difficulty" in After the Death of Poetry: Poet and Audience in Contemporary America (Durham: Duke U P, 1993), 124-125, 127.


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