The New American Project: The New American Poetry Anthology and The Arcades Project, Chapter 2 of 3
[Note: This is part 2 of a 3 part series. For part 1, click here]
The Benjaminian ideas found in the Arcades Project Convolutes of “The Street of Paris”, “Mirrors”, and “Modes of Lighting” evoke the spirit of the automobile and the freedom that comes with it. In American literature the Automobile and the intertwined concept of the American open road have been explored — either with the glory of mobility that comes with it or the struggle of continuing life without it after becoming so reliant— from the beginning of the automobile’s popularity in America, with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road to the more contemporary The Road by Cormac McCarthy. While the phenomenon of automobiles cannot be found with such intensity in Walter Benjamin’s Paris, the concepts present in these Convolutes, when recontextualised, have a deep-seated place in twentieth century America, when cars grew in size and power to reflect the post-war prosperity of the 1950s. With the All-American Road Trip, now possible with more powerful cars and ideas popularised by Kerouac, one needs the tools that make such a thing possible: the shiny chrome mirrors and blazing headlights to navigate the open road, and the open road itself, connecting all parts of the country together, and with it, all walks of life. Without the streets, this American phenomenon would not be possible. The absence of the American streets would alter the identity of the country and make it more like the car culture of Europe.
Allen Ginsberg, Philip Whalen, and John Ashbery all lived through the boom of the American automobile and were no strangers to taking to the road in search of inspiration, change of scenery, or America itself. These poets were at the forefront of American poetry during the mid-century, entrenched in American culture, while at the same time being inspired by and living in European ideas and societies, particularly the French. By applying the decidedly French Benjaminian “automobile” concepts to the poetry of these three American poets, it is possible to construct the intricate and sometimes conflicting views that they had of the communities, cities, and country they lived in, and maybe trace the lineage between American and European radical thinking.
Walter Benjamin pre-empts the American dedication to the open road when he says “…the person who travels a street…has no need of any waywise guiding hand. It is not in wandering that man takes to the street, but rather in submitting to the monotonous, fascinating, constantly unrolling band of asphalt”.[i] This band of asphalt could very well be route 66 that stretched from Los Angeles to Chicago, a road that many people, including artists, found inspiring. Ginsberg, Whalen, and Ashbery, though, instead focus on what Benjamin calls the “sensuality in [the] street” rather than the street itself.[ii] This is the intimate knowledge and experience one has after living among such streets. Ashbery’s poem, “The Instruction Manual” is a poem that displays this sensuality like a painting. The colours used by Ashbery invoke a detailed image that carries a deep intimacy in the memory of the speaker of the poem. From the “rose-and-blue striped dress”[iii] wore by a Mexican girl in the city of Guadalajara to the “little white booth where women serve you green and yellow fruit”[iv], the poem displays a liveliness and mixing of culture. This mixture of people and culture is one that Benjamin noted when he quoted Paul-Ernest de Rattier, who said of the street dwellers of Paris:
The true Paris is full of freakshows…reposing side by side are hundreds, thousands, of charlatans, of match sellers, of accordion players, of hunchbacks, of the blind and lame; of dwarfs, legless cripples…rubber jointed men, clowns making a comeback, and sword swallowers…walking skeletons, transparent humans made of light…monsters who speak French[v]
This same cacophony of people is found, though less sinisterly and less French, in Ashbery’s Guadalajara. This city that is portrayed as modest, but joyous; musicians, vendors, children, the elderly, dapper, and homely can be found in the streets. On the bandstand, “the band is playing Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov”.[vi] This orchestral piece that has been played in the great symphonic halls of Europe, is found here played in a modest Mexican city, for the enjoyment of all, furthering that mixture of lifestyles. Rather than invalidate the grandeur of the piece, it serves to elevate the surroundings. Here, the streets represent a wholesome society, coming together for a celebration, a separation from the mundane corporate work that the speaker of the poem is performing in its opening and closing lines. As the poets write of their unique perspective of life on the streets, this wholesome society is subject to questioning.
The wholesomeness of this society is not called into question though, when experiencing what Benjamin calls the “sensuality [in] the street…the only sort which citizens of the town… can still perceive”.[vii] The streets are very sensuously described by Ashbery with his use of colour and attention to detail, especially when describing the citizens of Guadalajara. In these streets he has seen “young love, married love, and the love of an aged mother for her son”[viii]. The young love is described in sensuous, yet innocent detail and is a display of the life events that happen in the streets of this town:
But I have lost sight of the young fellow with the tooth-
Wait-there he is-on the other side of the bandstand,
Secluded from his friends, in earnest talk with a young
Of fourteen or fifteen. I try to hear what they are saying
But it seems they are just mumbling something – shy
Words of love, probably.
She is slightly taller than he, and looks quietly down into
His sincere eyes.
She is wearing white. The breeze ruffles her long fine
Black hair against her olive cheek.
Obviously she is in love. The boy, the young boy with the
Toothpick, he is in love too;
His eyes show it. Turning from this couple,
I see there is an intermission in the concert.[ix]
This scene is a description of both the intimacy between people and between people and their city. the young girl in white with the breeze in her hair is an image of purity that looks down on the young boy with an authoritative and protective gaze. There are no unnecessary aspects to her image, no reliance on anything but herself. The boy, in contrast, has a toothpick. An extra tool, that acts as an augmenter to his person. It adds an edge of risk with its literal sharpness. This use of an external tool emphasises the need for outside reliance, which the young girl readily demonstrates she will provide. The boy also shows he is ready to foster a relationship with someone, despite his toothpick flaws, with his “sincere eyes”.[x]
This portrayal of interpersonal intimacy is one that can extend further out into a scene of a citizen and their city. The intimacy that is fostered between a person and the city they live in is demonstrated between these two characters, with the young girl as the city and the young boy as the citizen. The city is as it is. The people bring with them their own identities and flaws and external supports. The city and the citizen, after sharing the same space, start an exchange of identity and take on as much character as the other. This is the basis of the intimacy between person and place. Marta Figlerowicz writes that the affects written by Ashbery, such as seen in this scene between the boy and the girl, are “fantasies of being intimately understood and cared for by others. Such fantasies that the task of elucidating their affects has been outsourced to the surrounding world highlight his speakers’ uncertainty about how well they can articulate their affects themselves”.[xi] It is this uncertainty that the young boy is experiencing, both of himself and the intimacy about to be entered into by him. The outsourcing taking place is that of solidifying one’s identity. In the wider context, Figlerowicz maps the evolution of one’s identity while living in a city, the potential evolution of the young characters and the evolution of the people and city streets around them. This mixing of identities produces an intimate understanding and interdependent identity between city and citizen.
The age of the two characters foreshadows the intimacy that grows between a person and the city they live in. the fact that this scene takes place near the bandstand in the town square is of no small significance either. This ties the experience of intimate discovery into the very fabric of the streets. It is just one vital aspect of the colourful experience that one has when living in a city. it is the sensuality and intimacy of “street corners, curb-stones, the architecture of the pavement…heat, filth, and edges of the stones beneath…naked soles”, of each other, and their city that the young boy and young girl will come to know.[xii]
Philip Whalen, in his poem, “For C”, portrays the streets as place of uncertainty, a place for discomfort, in direct opposition to Ashbery’s view, and in echo of Benjamin’s ideas about streets. Benjamin uses Mercier’s example of horn blowers that act as attention getters in the streets of Paris, ones that would sharply and abruptly announce their presence to those walking along the street in a jarring blast where “one trembles at these keen daily alarms”.[xiii] These blasts were used to announce the presence of water. Here the symbol of the horn gathers all the attention with its blasts from the horn blower. The speaker of Whalen’s poem has a flower, rather than a horn, with which to gain the attention of the street dwellers. In an inverse move, the flower, rather than proud forceful blasts that leave the street dwellers shaken, gains the unwanted attention of the street dwellers and leaves the speaker shaken. And rather than announcing the presence of water, the flower announces the presence of love. the speaker decides against gathering this unwanted attention:
I wanted to bring you this Jap iris
Orchid-white with yellow blazons
But I couldn’t face carrying it down the street
Afraid everyone would laugh
And now they’re dying of my cowardice.[xiv]
This shift shows a movement from utilitarian atmosphere of the city street to a more emotional, inner looking view. Moving the city from a place of industry to a place of human living. Whalen opens the street to a place where love may or may not be displayed, rather than a mere passageway for resources. Of course, this flood of human experience comes at the price of other humans’ experience of the street.
The speaker of the poem takes into consideration the views of his fellow street travellers and that informs his decision to not carry the flower to his beloved. This is in direct contrast with the disregard the horn blowers of the past had for their fellow street travellers’ ears. It is also in contrast with Ashbery’s view, when Whalen writes:
In my hand, in the street [the flower] is a sign
A whole procession of ithyphallic satyrs
Through a town whose people like to believe:
“I was made like Jesus, out of love; my daddy was a spook.”[xv]
The speaker worries about what the people in the street will think and imply of his flower. This is a result of a self-consciousness that is absent in the street wide celebrations in “The Instruction Manual”. This assumption by the people in the street seeing the flower is one that removes these street people further from Benjamin’s. Here, the street people are over-pious people uncomfortable with viewing a naturally phallus-shaped flower in the hand of a man. this view of background street as overly conservative and overly sensitive shows the antithesis of the inhuman menagerie of Parisian street dwellers, for to be human is to be sensitive. These humans in “For C.” have taken it to the furthest extreme of sensitivity, a far cry from the unobservant street dwellers of the Paris underbelly.
The poem further contradicts Benjaminian in its antepenultimate verse, where we see the flower for what it is:
And Lacking the courage to tell you, “I’m here,
Such as I am; I need you and you need me”
Planning to give you this flower instead-
Intending it to mean “this is really I, tall, slender,
Perfectly formed-” is uglier than their holy fantasies[xvi]
When the speaker of the poem reveals the flower is a signatory of himself, it becomes clear that it is an anxiety of having people on the street seeing him in a natural state that he is dealing with. The fear of having people see him for what he is prevents him from expressing his love for, presumably, “C”. This interaction prevents Whalen’s speaker from engaging with the “dialectic of flânerie”, a concept found in a separate but heavily related convolute, “The Flâneur”. Of the two things that make up the dialectic of the flânerie, which in turn makes up a true Flâneur or “man of the crowd”, the speaker cannot attain that of the man “who is utterly undiscoverable, the hidden man”.[xvii] in the case of the speaker, the hidden man has become one with the other half of the dialectic, the “man who feels himself viewed by all and sundry as a true suspect”.[xviii] Here the speaker is a true suspect on the street because the hidden man is exposed through the flower, thus violating the dialectic of the flânerie and changing what would have been a flâneur’s public anonymity into an intimate display. The street traveller goes from keeping the exterior out to letting the interior out.
The speaker is reliant on the outside to form his own image. As Figlerowicz writes, this poem “convey[s] a fear of how dependent we are on our environments for such clarifying reflections of [one’s] inner states”.[xix] Here, Whalen’s speaker becomes dependant on his environment to decide his inner state. On top of that, it is his projection of his environment that he takes as the true image. Therefore, it is his inner state projecting an image of the outer world and reflecting on that image to form itself. this intertwined clarification of self is reflective of the dependence between self-identity and societal expectation.
This is a rejection of authenticity in the street that is present in Ashbery’s poem and is much more complex in Benjamin’s writings. It is in the end that the speaker of “for C.”, after thinking the street in no place for it, regains his composure and authenticity of self when he attains a much less curated plant in a much rougher way, by pulling it out of the bushes. He does this “with love”[xx] after having been afraid to show his love to “C” throughout the poem. When this view of the street as a capricious arena to display authenticity is combined with Ashbery’s portrayal, the street is a place for a guarded openness. An authenticity that is present if all people present participate.
Allen Ginsberg portrays the streets as a very different place, a place with complete disregard for who is and is not willing to participate. In part I of “Howl”, Ginsberg dives the deepest into what living on the city streets — in this case the New York streets — can do a society, or at least those outside of the society of the mainstream. From people “destroyed by madness” to people “who threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers”,[xxi] Ginsberg’s poem is a sprawling depiction of the multi-faceted lives in city streets. “Howl” performs the function of presenting a much larger, more complicated places in a smaller more manageable piece, “the world in miniature”,[xxii] as Benjamin proposes a street should do. Ginsberg achieves what is only proposed by French revolutionary thinkers.[xxiii] He presents a portrait of the world around him onto a condensed experience on the page rather than the street, the preferred canvas of the revolution era thinkers. Here Ginsberg ties together the multi-class, multi-ethnic experience of New York City, specifically the counter-culture of the city. This tying together of classes and lives is put most succinctly in the line, “who talked continuously seventy hours from park to pad to bar to Bellevue to museum to the Brooklyn Bridge”.[xxiv] Here the close proximity of setting associated with different class levels displays the intermingling of the cosmopolitan city and the participation, that was possible at the time, for all to experience. Opening with a park, a public space for all to enter; to pad, street slang for most commonly a modest home; to bar, again a universal space; to Bellevue, a hospital so closely associated with its psychiatric ward that “Bellevue” has become a metonym for a mental institution. From this ward associated with the outcasts of society, the temple of high society follows, the museum. To sum up the nature of the city, the line ends with arguably the most famous liminal space in The United States, The Brooklyn Bridge.
Ginsberg represents his friends and experiences of the subversive underworld. A city underneath a city that is almost literally manifested in the shape of the New York Subway system. Benjamin describes metro systems as “troglodytic kingdoms”,[xxv] places that disregard the flow of the world above, kingdoms of darkened halls and train tracks, a different kind of street, that has its own atmosphere, system, and rules. The metro system of Paris represents an alternative to the ego filled tradition of the flâneur’s streets. And New York’s subway system does the same. Ginsberg points out that the counter-cultural underground exists not in a small pocket of the city, but all throughout the city streets, in parallel to the mainstream, in “subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx”,[xxvi] the southernmost tip of Manhattan and the city and a whole, and the northern most borough in the city, respectively. This alternate transportation system exists underneath the metropolitan grid of the New York streets, equal in range, and greater in its commitment to the modern, like the sub-culture it represents. Timothy Scott Brown writes that for the radical Avant-guard of New York in the 60’s, “the occupation of public space into an assault on authority”.[xxvii] It is this occupation of space that is so significant to the city experience. It is in the streets of a city that the counter-culture and mainstream culture can exist in the same space, though it may include one or both cultures feeling offense at the presence of the other.
For the sub-culture of Ginsberg and his ilk, it was not as cushioned an existence on the New York streets as it might have been for someone living on Park Avenue. The picture painted by the line “dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix”[xxviii] is not one of luxury or inclusion. The “negro streets” present a separated, isolated space, much like the ethnically centralized neighbourhoods throughout New York City, particularly Harlem and neighbourhoods further north in Manhattan. These neighbourhoods are not only isolated, but places one must go for illicit activities, like scoring heroin, or “an angry fix”. This line encapsulates both the alienation felt by, and the drug laden lifestyle of, The Beat Generation and their fellow counter-cultural members. This is one example of a time where space is not occupied by both the mainstream counter-culture at the same time.
This is a stark contrast to Ashbury’s portrayal of the streets as a place for inclusive celebration, despite Ashbury being a member of the same poetic Avant-guard, if not the same counter-culture movement, as Ginsberg. In “Howl”, Ginsberg recaptures that sinister feel of street dwellers, that Ashbury rejects and that Whalen hints at. Here, Ginsberg is a chronicler of the city streets, like Ashbury in “the Instruction Manual”, but also a participant in them, like Whalen in “For C.”. Ginsberg combines the intense observation of the former and the emotional accounting of the latter, resulting in a wide ranging, passionate, portrait of the city and the people in its streets. Ginsberg’s account, of the three poets, is much closer to the sprawl of collage that Benjamin uses to describe how he sees the city streets. There is a complexity to be seen between the two account of city life, and between the three accounts of the poets. The intermingling of the poems, all written around the same time, does give a complex and near complete picture of city streets. As complex, albeit often different, as Benjamin’s convolute.
Lighting and Mirrors
Benjamin notes that one of the functions of mirrors, when quoting Karl Gutzkow, is to “bring the open expanse, the streets, into the café-this, too, belongs to the interweaving of spaces”.[xxix] This interweaving of space, or transfer of experience from outward to in, is a process performed by both Benjamin’s mirrors and the poems of Ashbury, Whelan, and Ginsberg. One proposed purpose of the poet is to hold a mirror up to society, to show society itself and to expose an overlooked part of society to itself. this is particularly evident in the poetry of the New American Poetry anthology. These poems display a wide range of economic classes and social archetypes to an audience that wouldn’t necessarily be aware of them otherwise. These are presented not only by the three poets discussed, but by the intellectual upper-middle class experience of Frank O’Hara, the experience of the oppressed African American urban experience of Leroi Jones, as he was known at the time; to the working-class domestic life of Robert Creeley. The poems of Ashbury, Whalen, and Ginsberg act as a mirror, if a slightly angled one, to give the reading audience three reflections of itself that it might not have seen before: a foreign reflection, an intimate reflection, and a demented reflection. These three reflections, when sent out into the public, make a more complex interweaving of space.
When these poems function as mirrors, they, as Benjamin suggests they should, refocus the view, rather than enhance any existing view.[xxx] Ginsberg’s “Howl”, when going on trial for obscenity, revealed to the United States a seedy subculture of activities all frowned upon at the time by mainstream attitudes, such as drugs, homosexuality, communism, and poverty. Whether the angry citizens that expressed their rage in the “Letters to the Editor” section of the April 1957 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle wanted to be or not, they were exposed to an America that they either wilfully ignored or were wilfully ignorant of, while they continued living under the conservative mood of McCarthyism in Eisenhower’s America. “Howl” held up the mirror of an alternative America, an America that juxtaposed “supernatural ecstasy” with “boxcars boxcars boxcars racketing through snow toward lonesome farms”.[xxxi] Ashbury’s poem holds up a wider mirror than “Howl” and exposes the American reader to place in a different country, of a different culture, and of a different race. The Mexican city of Guadalajara is a friendly open place where “an old woman…welcomes [visitors] to her patio and offers [them] a cooling drink”.[xxxii] Here, the kindness and warmth of the Mexican people and their culture is preserved and displayed for the American and international reading audience, thus humanising the unknown, familiarising the Other, and reflecting the common humanity of the species around the world. This reflects a growing international community outside America and a growing cosmopolitan one within. This cosmopolitanism is apparent through Ashbery’s own New York School of poetry and throughout the interwoven poetic community of mid-century America. Ashbury’s mirror holds up a reflection of world potentially unknown to most: a culture outside their own. Whelan’s poem, with its introspective, highly relatable content holds up a mirror that may well be the most startling. “For C.” presents a reflection of self. It opens a discussion for something that many people may have been experiencing alone and is a testament to the connecting power of poetry and art in general. It connects the audience with a universal fear of judgment, shame, and embarrassment, while interacting with the universality of love and nature. The mirror held up here displays a reflection of oneself and at the same time shows the similarity of all people. It takes a primal concept and recontextualises it in a very modern and cosmopolitan situation. Until readers of Whelan’s self-reflecting mirror come to terms with it, it is more difficult to come to terms with than Ginsberg’s smeared mirror or Ashbury’s travelling mirror. This makes Whelan’s mirror the most essential.
Benjamin suggests that with the “new street lamps [that] took over the older apparatus, and permanent lighting was substituted for intermittent lighting”[xxxiii] that lighting is a form of modernity. A way to test the attitude of the era. As the technology of a society moved forward so does its light source, from fire, to candle, to gas lamp, to electric lamp. He goes on to suggest that “every historical period is bathed in a distinctive light”[xxxiv]. The distinctive light of the American mid-century is that of modernism, specifically the third-generation modernism that these three poets and their colleagues embody. This mid-century modernism swept all aspects of creative culture in America from interior design and architecture to painting and fashion. These poets, as members of the poetic Avant-guard, were the guiding light of innovative poetic tradition and technique, like Ginsberg’s use of breath, Ashbury’s evolution of the surreal, and their colleague Charles Olson’s projective use of space on the page. These poems as light and reflectors bring about a new perspective of the city, country, and even world around them, just as each paragraph of information illuminates further each concept of a Benjaminian convolute.
[For Part 3, click here]
[i] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002) p.519 [P2,1]
[ii] Ibid, p. 517 [P1, 10]
[iii] John Ashbery, “The Instruction Manual” in The New American Poetry Anthology, ed. Donald Allen, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999) p. 272
[v] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002) p.524 [P4,1]
[vi] John Ashbery, “The Instruction Manual” in The New American Poetry Anthology, ed. Donald Allen, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999) p. 272
[vii] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002) p.517 [P1, 10]
[viii] John Ashbery, “The Instruction Manual” in The New American Poetry Anthology, ed. Donald Allen, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999) p. 275
[ix] Ibid. p. 273
[xi] Figlerowicz, Marta. Spaces of Feeling. Affect and Awareness in Modernist Literature (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2017) p. 114
[xii] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002) p.517 [P1, 10]
[xiii] Ibid. p.525 [P4a,5]
[xiv]Philip Whalen, “For C.” in The New American Poetry Anthology, ed. Donald Allen, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999) p. 293
[xv] Ibid, p. 294
[xvii] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002) p.420 [M2, 8]
[xix] Figlerowicz, Marta. Spaces of Feeling. Affect and Awareness in Modernist Literature (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2017) p. 116
[xx] Philip Whalen, “For C.” in The New American Poetry Anthology, ed. Donald Allen, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999) p. 294
[xxi] Allen Ginsberg, “Howl” in The New American Poetry Anthology, ed. Donald Allen, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999) p. 187
[xxii] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002) p.3
[xxiii] For more, see: Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002) p. 527 [P1,7]
[xxiv] Allen Ginsberg, “Howl” in The New American Poetry Anthology, ed. Donald Allen, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999) p. 183
[xxv] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002) p. 519 [p2,3]
[xxvi] Allen Ginsberg, “Howl” in The New American Poetry Anthology, ed. Donald Allen, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999) p. 183
[xxvii] Timothy Brown Scott, “The Sixties in the City: Avant-guardes and Urban Rebels in New York, London, and West Berlin” in Journal of Social History, Vol 46, Issue 4, (1 June 2014)
[xxviii] Allen Ginsberg, “Howl” in The New American Poetry Anthology, ed. Donald Allen, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), p. 182
[xxix] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002) p. 537 [R1,1]
[xxx] For more on the theme of refocusing in The Arcades Project, see: Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002) Pp. 537-542
[xxxi] Allen Ginsberg, “Howl” in The New American Poetry Anthology, ed. Donald Allen, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), p. 184
[xxxii]John Ashbury, “The Instruction Manual” in The New American Poetry Anthology, ed. Donald Allen, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999) p. 274
[xxxiii] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002) P. 563 [T1,7]
[xxxiv] Ibid, p. 564 [T1a,10]
Ryan De Leon was born and raised in Southern California before moving to the UK and earning his BA in English Literature and Music and his MA in English Literature, both at Newcastle University. He is now back in California and is the founder of Sons and Daughters.