Tennis Court Oaths: France and the Making of John Ashbery

Robert Archambeau

1. I regret these stairs

“I regret,” intoned the solemn-eyed boy, climbing the steps of the school where he attended kindergarten, “these stairs.” Many years later, when the boy had become perhaps the most lauded poet in America, he would tell an interviewer that he’d had no idea what the word “regret” meant back then, but it seemed resonant to him. What is more, by saying the word he discovered that he did, somehow, regret those stairs. Language delighted him without having to be useful, and language held the key to unexpected truths. Small wonder, then, that four years after he declared his regret, the boy would fixate on a Life magazine feature on Surrealism, the first mass media treatment of that movement in America. Poring over images of Réne Magritte’s art and a description of André Breton’s automatic writing, the young Ashbery declared himself a Surrealist at once. The moment is, to the best of my knowledge, Ashbery’s first profound encounter with French culture. And it is France that made Ashbery—that made his poetry what it is, and made, in a roundabout way, his American reputation.


2. If nobody’s listening…

Q: I was wondering if the fact that you were away from America and away from the magazines and reviewers and friends and so on, whether that may have had something to do with the fact that you felt you could go right out on a limb.

A: Yes, I think it did. My idea probably was ‘Well, if nobody’s listening, then why not go ahead and talk to myself, and see what I get out of it.’[1]

This exchange between the Australian poet John Tranter and John Ashbery captures the two most vital things about Ashbery’s years in France. When Ashbery resided there as a Fulbright Scholar from the fall of 1955 to the fall of 1957, and again from the summer of 1958 until late in 1965, he experienced a great deal of isolation—and in that isolation wrote the most radically experimental works of his career. The two phenomena were not unrelated. 

France had, since Ashbery’s childhood, been bound up with his ideal of aesthetic escape. Surrealism, as interpreted by Life magazine, had been a largely French and Franco-Belgian phenomenon, and Ashbery’s early readings of French fairy tales had led him to think of French literature as a romantic place distant from the dissatisfying ordinary world. In his teens, Ashbery wrote the more private passages of his journal in French, concealing intimate experience from the denizens of the mundane world of upstate New York. Later, at Harvard, French poetry had inspired Ashbery and his friends, who found French more congenial than English or American writing. Much like the English aesthetes of 1890s, Ashbery’s circle felt the allure of France, and for same reasons: their alienation from their own culture, and the draw of a tradition in French poetry, from Baudelaire on, of an aesthetic secession from the world.

Ashbery’s time in France was its own kind of aesthetic secession. He worked primarily as an art critic, piecing a meager living together by writing for ARTnews and the New York Herald Tribune. The critic’s life involved a combination of the intense experience of art and a free-floating disengagement from the workaday world. Ashbery spent a great deal of time on long walks exploring the city, much in the manner of the flânneur, and knew no almost no one, other than a few American writers and his partner Pierre Martory—a writer so alienated from the literary life of Paris that he rarely even sought publication. Rather than experiencing this isolation as a burden, though, Ashbery found it enormously liberating. As he put it in “American Sanctuary in Paris,” a kind of farewell to France published in 1966,

Up until the last war it was expected of American artists who could afford it to spend a year or more studying in Paris and looking at the museums of Europe. Today the situation has changed. American artists no longer come to Europe to study… New York is the capital of the contemporary art world, and it is the French who are now beginning their Wanderjahre in New York or Los Angeles…. Americans who still continue to live and work in France… prefer France for reasons of privacy and isolation…[2]

Ashbery’s French isolation was magnified by his lack of any readership to speak of beyond his circle of poet and artist friends in New York. Their friendship did little to convince Ashbery he would have a public career as a writer: he has said, of his poems at the time, “I didn’t think anybody would want them.”[3]

Ashbery’s engagement with French literature during this period underlines his aesthete’s secession from the larger world. The writer upon whom he lavishes the most attention while in France, and whose reputation in the English-speaking world he has since helped to revive, is Raymond Roussel. Roussel, alienated from French society by his homosexuality, and liberated from the workaday world by his family fortune, composed idiosyncratic works that appear more as elaborate formal constructs than anything like depictions of the external world. Ashbery came to particularly treasure Roussel’s Nouvelles Impressions, because he could read it as “a narrative poem without a subject, or almost. The real subject is its form.”[4]


3. The Enterprise of Serious French Poetry, or: The Reviews were Terrible

What did this deliberate isolation, this secession from audience, from native language, from America, mean for the poetry? It meant the possibility of The Tennis Court Oath. The poems of that book are, by general critical consensus, the most radically experimental in the Ashbery oeuvre, and “Europe,” the longest poem in the book, is among the most daunting. The poem reworks an old pulp novel, Beryl and the Biplane, that Ashbery chanced across in Paris, and from which he wrenched passages only to jam them together in new arrangements, much in the manner of William S. Burroughs’ cut-ups. Ashbery has said that his isolation in France, including his isolation from American speech, contributed to the need to undertake the project, and it is instructive to compare Ashbery’s own situation to his sense of how Gertrude Stein came to write her more experimentally ambitious works. According to Ashbery, Stein—who, not incidentally, was like Roussel in being alienated from the mainstream culture by sexuality and liberated from it by financial fortunes—experienced the French language during her years in Paris as an insulation that allowed her the necessary distance from ordinary American English to rethink her relation to language.

We find ourselves pretty far from ordinary English, American or otherwise, when we read The Tennis Court Oath. Some of the sections take us away from the ordinary in ways that we see again in the most famous poems of Ashbery’s subsequent career. Section 57, for example, preserves syntax, but empties it of stable reference to an explaining context, very much in the mode of the poetry Ashbery will write after The Tennis Court Oath:

Precise mechanisms
Love us

He came over the hill
He held me in his arms—it was marvelous.

But the map of Europe
Shrinks around naked couples

Even as you lick the stamp
A brown dog lies down beside you and dies

In the city an eleven year old girl with pig tails
Tied with a yellow ribbon takes the trolley

All of this ends somewhere—the book is replaced on the shelf
By an unseen hand

We are not more loved than now
The newspaper is ruining your eyes.

It is quite hard for me to know just how to take this—and unlike the poem’s initial readers, I’ve had the benefit of reading Ashbery and Ashbery commentary for decades. On the one hand, the couplets seem to have the self-sufficiency of independent distiches. But then again, we find a conjunction like “but” at the beginning of a line, implying a meaningful syntactical relationship to that which preceded it. And there’s the ambiguity of “all of this ends somewhere”—all of what? The preceding parts of the section? Or does “this” have some unknowable referent, like the identity of the “he” in the second couplet? The section as a whole seems very much like what Fredric Jameson had in mind when he linked Ashbery to the signature device of France’s greatest poetic obscurantist. Describing Ashbery’s characteristic mode as the “Mallarmean sentence” Jameson tells us these sentences “unfold in a perfectly grammatical way and offer the syntactical part of the mind a set of operations which has no other identifiable motivation and which thus unexpectedly simply designates itself as pure operation, as pure syntactical process to be completed.”[5]

Other sections of “Europe” are more radical still. Section 21 consists of two lines: “Night hunger/of berry . . . stick,” and section 61, reads, in its entirety, “reflecting trout,” while section 69 reads “because it is/That is to say.” It is in sections like these that we see how it was not only exile that mattered in the creation of “Europe”: it was the French poetic tradition. That tradition, as described by Harold Rosenberg in an essay that could not have escaped Ashbery’s attention, was akin to “Europe” in aims, if not always in execution: “Lifting up a word and putting space around it has been the conscious enterprise of serious French poetry since Baudelaire and Rimbaud,” writes Rosenberg, “with this ‘alchemy’ poetry dissolves traditional preconceptions…” In this tradition, he continues, “the poet feels a tremendous need to turn off the belt-line of rhetoric… Before any poetic event can happen the cultural clatter must be stopped.”[6] The isolation of words and short phrases in “Europe” has an effect much the same as that described by Rosenberg. It is perhaps significant in this context to note that The Tennis Court Oath’s title invokes one of the most rhetorical paintings of a highly rhetorical period of French history: Jacques-Louis David’s depiction of the central moment in the genesis of the French Revolution. The cryptic fragments of “Europe” can be seen, in the context invoked by the title of the book in which they appear, as a deliberate turning off of the belt-line of rhetoric. But Ashbery’s anti-rhetorical move proved too radical for the critics back home: when Wesleyan University Press published The Tennis Court Oath in 1962, the reviews were terrible.


4. Annus mirabilis ’76, or: the French conquest of American criticism

A decade and a half later, things were different. When Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror appeared in 1976, it became the first book of poetry to win the trifecta of major prizes: the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Ashbery has become so bedecked in prizes since then (the second most decorated of living American poets, behind W.S. Merwin) that it is difficult to imagine how unlikely this event must have seemed prior to it actually happening. 

When Ashbery returned to the United States in 1965, he was still a marginal figure in American poetry: his reputation was based almost entirely in the New York art scene, where he had serious mystique (Andy Warhol welcomed Ashbery back from France with a party at the Factory). But by the late seventies, the American literary and academic establishment was ready to embrace him. One of the most important things to have changed between Ashbery’s return to the United States and his annus mirabilis of awards was the nature of the critical apparatus employed by the more advanced literary thinkers. 1976 was, after all, not only a great year for Ashbery’s career: it was a turning point in academic literary history, the point at which structuralist and poststructuralist literary theory began to break through into the academic mainstream.

French literary theory had been making inroads in America since the 1960s, with an important issue of Yale French Studies and the Johns Hopkins conference "The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man," but 1976 was the year that a translation of Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology finally appeared in English, and the year in which Glyph and October—journals largely devoted to importing French theory—began publication (boundary 2 had been founded in 1971, Diacritics and SubStance in 1972, Semiotext(e) and Critical Inquiry in 1974, and Signs in 1975). The mid-seventies were also the tipping point at which literature departments became the primary nexus by which continental theory was transmitted into the United States: a distinct rise in articles on Derrida in journals associated with such departments began in 1975, and by 1980 more than half of all American articles on Foucault, Derrida, Althusser, and Lacan were being published in literary journals. The stage was well set for the triumph of French theory in America in the 1980s.

Pedagogically speaking, 1976 was also a key year for the transformation of American literature departments into theory-rich (or, as many at the time would have it, theory-bedeviled) environments. As François Cusset puts it in French Theory, his study of the migration of poststructural theory form France to America,

Beginning in 1976, what was as yet only a theoretical program will find itself read, studied, and set to work in certain graduate literature courses, especially at Yale and Cornell. One began gradually to apply deconstruction, to draw from it modalities of a new ‘close reading’ of the literary classics, and to find in these latter, as through a magnifying glass, the mechanisms by which the referent is dissipated, the content ceaselessly differed/deferred by writing itself.[7]

Affinities between Ashbery’s work and the newly-prestigious forms of continental theory were easy enough to find—both Ashbery and the maîtres à penser of the new literary thinking had drawn from the well of French poetry—and seminar discussions begat conference papers which in turn begat scholarly publications linking Ashbery and deconstruction. We begin to see essays with titles like “Apocalyptic Rhetoric: Ashbery, Derrida, Blanchot” or “John Ashbery’s Flow Chart: John Ashbery and the Theorists on John Ashbery Against the Critics Against John Ashbery,” and we find Ashbery interviewed in the pages of SubStance

Even the more politicized among literary theorists, those concerned with class struggle as much as with the incoherence or self-contradiction of the text, recruited Ashbery to their program: Keith Cohen’s 1980 essay “Ashbery’s Dismantling of Bourgeois Discourse,” for example, argues that “Ashbery aims consistently at the glibness, deceitfulness, and vapidity of bourgeois discourse and in his poems subjects discourse to a process of disintegration” and that the poetry is “a very serious attack, through language, on basic assumptions, institutions, and modes of thought in contemporary America.”8 Ashbery had resolutely maintained that poetry was poetry and protest was protest, but Cohen saw it otherwise: his Ashbery was an Althusser.

Another kind of politicized Ashbery emerges in different strands of theory-inflected criticism: the identity politics of the 1980s and the queer theory of the 1990s. These gave us articles like “‘Our Days Put on Such Reticence’: The Rhetoric of the Closet in Some Trees” and “Reports of Looting and Insane Buggery behind Altars: John Ashbery’s Queer Poetics.” Whether one’s brand of literary theory was deconstructive, neo-Marxist, or based on gender and sexuality, Ashbery’s poetry provided significant grist for the mill, and he seemed to have anticipated theory at every turn—an anticipation sensed by Ashbery’s friends and intimate readers. David Shapiro, for example, once told me that when Ashbery came to him in the late seventies and asked if he should read Derrida, he replied “no need—you’re already with him.”

The rise of literary theory in American literature departments was accompanied by a near-simultaneous backlash from more traditionally oriented academics, but this didn’t threaten Ashbery’s rising status, because traditionalists were quick to claim him too, rather than cede him to the French invaders and their allies. Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler were quick to write Ashbery into the history of canonical English and American poetry, with Bloom placing Ashbery squarely in the tradition of Emerson, Whitman, and Stevens, and Vendler claiming Asbery for the tradition running from Wordsworth through Keats and Tennyson and on to Stevens. The French embrace led to an Anglo-American counter-embrace, with the result that both sides claimed Ashbery as their own.

It’s little wonder, then, that since 1976 Ashbery has become one of the most honored and canonical of living American poets—as well as an officer of the French Légion d’honneur. And it was France that both made him the poet we love and taught so many of us how to love him.



[1] “John Ashbery in Conversation with John Tranter.” Jacket no. 2 (1997).

[2] Ashbery, John. Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles, 1957-1987, ed. David Bergman. New York: Knopf, 1989: 87.

[3] Smith, Dinitia. “Poem Alone: The Cryptic John Ashbery, America’s Foremost Poet, Goes the Distance.” New York May 20, 1991, 46-52: 51.

[4] Other Traditions. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 2000: 67.

[5] The Modernist Papers. London: Verso, 2007: 329.

[6] Rosenberg, Harold. The Tradition of the New. New York: Grove, 1961: 88-89. The essay was originally published as the preface to the American edition of Marcel Raymond’s From Baudelaire to Surrealism, published in 1950 by Wittenborn, Schultz, pioneering publishers of modern art documents in the New York art world whose shop on East 57th Street (and later Madison Avenue) was a haven for Surrealists and Abstract Expressionists in the 40s and 50s, and served as a gallery for younger artists. As a graduate student in French, a poet, and a figure on the New York artistic scene of the time, Ashbery is exceedingly unlikely not to have encountered Rosenberg’s essay.

[7] Cusset, François. French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States, trans. Jeff Fort. St. Paul: University of Minnesota Press, 2008: 110-111.

[8] Cohen, Keith. “Ashbery’s Dismantling of Bourgeois Discourse.” In Beyond Amazement: New Essays on John Ashbery, ed. David Lehman. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1980: 128-149: 128.