John Ashbery and Daffy Duck

This is a repost from my old blog, somewhat altered. I suspect I will be enlarging and rewriting this again:

John Ashbery

John Ashbery

John Ashbery is one of America’s best-known living poets, a former art critic, and, apparently, a fan of animated cartoons. His poem “Daffy Duck in Hollywood,” from 1975, has been studied and dissected by many scholars, professional and amateur. Now it’s my turn. You can hear a reading of the poem here.

I could have focussed on Ashbery’s 1966 poem, “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape,” which is about Popeye and his colleagues (Wimpy, the Sea Hag, etc.), but as I wanted to disuse surrealism in cartoons and poetry, “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” is a better choice. Where “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape” is superior is in its structure; Popeye and friends are present throughout the poem – better storytelling in a cartoon sense, but arguably worse in a surrealist sense. Both poems are worth reading, even for the cartoon fan who has never bothered with poetry before, or the poetry maven who scorns more proletarian entertainments (that’s a lot of implied snobbery for one sentence).

Before I get too far into this, let me clarify a few things. Cartoon surrealism is different from written surrealism, and both differ from the other iterations of surrealism. It’s not merely comparing oranges and apples, more like oranges and kumquats, tomatoes, prunes, pineapples, and apples – perhaps with a potato thrown in as a ringer. Each type of surrealism shares attributes, however general or vague, with the others, and, in this case, one type is juxtaposed with another. Comparisons of this kind can be fruitless and quixotic, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth doing. Quixote’s motives, however muddled, were of the best; I am quite willing to tilt at windmills. I even enjoy it.

Ashbery reaches toward the benign surrealism of animated cartoons (as Ashbery is writing about Hollywood studio cartoons and print cartoons I am limiting the comparison) and elicits a sense of dreamlike rather than unease. Ashbery’s admission that “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” owes more to Chuck Jones’ cartoon Duck Amuck (1960), rather than Tex Avery’s 1938 cartoon from which it derives its title, is not surprising; Jones was the most intellectual, and, at his worst, over-intellectual, of cartoon directors. Lines such as “He promised he’d get me out of this one, / That mean old cartoonist, but just look what he’s / Done to me now!” certainly suggest a monologue from ‘Duck Amuck” or something like it.

Surrealism is one big in-joke; cartoon surrealism lets the audience in on the joke. Free association, leading to the common household objects turned into gags “Drink Friz,” “Uwanna Cracker,” are used to amuse, not disturb. The Fleischer Brothers, whose cartoons come up most often when surrealism is mentioned, draw from cartoon history more than surrealism, though the Fletchers, of all the movie cartoon studios, come closest to the dark side of surrealism. A knife grows a face and a licks its lips (Bimbo’s Initiation, 1931); the imagery in the Saint James Infirmary number in Snow-White (1933) plays humorously and morbidly with death. Ashbery is able to use inner monologues, something harder to reach in a cartoon.

From the poem:

“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.”

Andre Breton, in his Le Manifeste du Surrealisme (1924), defined surrealism two ways:
“SURREALISM, noun, masc., Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations.
ENCYCL. Philos. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association heretofore neglected, in the omnipotence of the dream, and in the disinterested play of thought. It leads to the permanent destruction of all other psychic mechanisms and to its substitution for them in the solution of the principal problems of life.”

From Wikipedia on Surrealism: “As they developed their philosophy, they [Breton and his colleagues] believed that Surrealism would advocate the idea that ordinary and depictive expressions are vital and important, but that the sense of their arrangement must be open to the full range of imagination according to the Hegelian Dialectic.”
Ashbery himself comes close to defining surrealism in the poem:

“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.”

Cartoons have played with surrealism in a very mild way, exploiting cultural references and creative misspellings to comic effect as noted above. Baseball Bugs (1946, d. Friz Freleng) features an advertisement on the outfield wall of the ballpark, reading “Filboid Studge” – recognizable to students of literature as the inedible breakfast cereal from Saki’s story “Filboid Studge, the story of a mouse that helped” (1911). A random nod, and an extra little laugh. Ashbery simply takes the surrealist habit and melds it with the brand-name dropping of an animated cartoon.

For pure, arbitrary humor, the early 1930s are a gold mine in animation. The bizarre quality of the Fleischer cartoons, which is a delight, has a subliminal sense of intention, and pales beside the sometimes baffling, and at times laugh-killing, randomness of Walter Lantz’s cartoons. Seeming scripted via some form of exquisite corpse, Lantz’s “The Bandmaster” (1931), starring Andy Panda, certainly has a surreal quality to it.

By the middle of the poem the cartoon is over. We have moved on, perhaps to a feature (Ashbery refers to plays such as Maurice Maeterlinck’s “Aglavaine and Selysette” (1896) and John Dryden’s “Aureng-Zebe” (1675) without providing context), perhaps just elsewhere, in the surrealist fashion. The end of the poem brings us down to the moment, an observation perhaps of the present, perhaps of the world of the poet’s dream. A little more arty than “That’s All Folks!”, but containing that same valedictory sense. Set your feet on the ground, move on. This strange play is over:

“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.”


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