by Spencer Tierney

I see myself in this totality, and meanwhile

I am only a transparent diagram, of manners and

Private words with the certainty of being about to fall.

-John Ashbery, “Clepsydra”, lines 190-192 (my emphasis)

In reading even a difficult poem, the “I”, the first-person, the lyrical, the immediate narrative presence, seems like it should be simple. The presence cannot simply change…or can it? In this excerpt of John Ashbery’s innovative (postmodern) poem “Clepsydra” (1966), identity is unable to be consolidated completely.

First, let’s take a look at the second line: “I am” is straightforward, “diagram” metaphorically clear maybe, but then there is a split. There is an enjambment (after the italicized “and”) which leaves the “and” conjunction split opened, spilling half of the identity into the next line, of “private words.” Even rhythmically, the “and” does not satisfy its own metrical foot—it relies upon the trochee “PRI-vate” to have the illusion of closure. Thus identity is spilling, unstable and relying on movement to the next line. Identity is not read in one direction, but resumed and qualified in another direction, downwards. (Sure, all reading does this, but the choice of lineation at “and” calls attention to this shift of direction.)

Now, more on the “I”: it has the human agency to self-reflexively “see” itself in reference to “this totality” (which enigmatically refers back a few lines to “the sum of all the private aspects that can ever / become legible in what is outside” (186-187)). But in the active process of seeing itself, the “I” also admits to a limiting (“only”) existence as a “diagram,” which is “a set of lines which represent symbolically the course of a process” (OED, n., 3a). (And “transparent”, visible through something, like words.)

Okay, so who is the “I”? A private, legible thing, it is a diagram, a set of lines, made up of conventions (“manners”) and words…

Here is the claim: the “I” is the poem itself, given a voice.

Consider: “private words” describe the intimate nature of writing, as it exists from a single voice (all words originate from separate voices/sources). From the initial intimacy, words are then shared, made readable, and published (“publish” stems from the Latin word publicus, “public”). So words are thus in the process of “fall”-ing, falling into the next line, falling out of privacy and into publicity in the very act of being read by another person.

Now here comes the curve ball: the “meanwhile” splits the “I” into two different times (meanwhile meaning “the time intervening between one particular event and another”, OED, n., A.1), an “I” that sees and another (in a different moment) that is. And another curve ball: “about to fall” is a phrase full of potential energy (physics), in the present tense but anticipating the future. The poem-speaker-“I” (the “manner” [form] and the “words” [content]) is “about to fall,” rendering its present identity unstable and reliant upon a future that will change the poem by a “fall”, into a longer length, with new words, with the fall of its watery flow (The poem’s title “clepsydra” refers to the Greek water clock).

The “I” is not static, nor just in present tense, nor just the poem’s presence…

The “I” is what can be read in a given moment, changing in the next.

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