Jacket 17 — June 2002   |   # 17  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |


Michael Leddy

Lives and Art:
John Ashbery and Henry Darger

Michael Leddy teaches at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. His criticism and poetry have been widely published. You can read his interview with classicist and translator Stanley Lombardo in Jacket 21.

You can read Forrest Gander’s review
of John Ashbery’s Girls on the Run in Jacket 8.

This piece is 5,000 words or about ten printed pages long.

JOHN ASHBERY read from Girls on the Run on March 22, 2002, at the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan. The reading was one event in ‘Delving into Darger,’ a weekend series of talks and dialogues about the ‘outsider’ artist Henry Darger (1892–1973), whose work currently occupies one of the museum’s four gallery floors. A hospital orderly and janitor who lived alone in a rented room in Chicago, Darger wrote and illustrated The Story of the Vivian Girls, in what is known as The Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. The 15,145-page single-spaced typescript recounts an epic struggle on an imaginary planet between the child-enslaving Glandelinians, some of whom are versions of Henry Darger himself, and the good Abbiennians, led by the Vivian Girls, seven young princesses aided by various heroes, some of whom are also versions of Henry Darger.

John Ashbery, Sydney

John Ashbery, Sydney, 1992, Photograph copyright John Tranter

Darger image 1 It is the several hundred illustrations accompanying the narrative (ranging from single pages to twelve-foot-long scrolls) that first generated interest in Darger’s work. Here, the sinister, sexually-charged violence of his story is presented via a bizarre pastoralism: young girls, often naked (with male genitalia), are pursued or strangled or eviscerated by adult-male armies, across landscapes filled with explosions, storms, and friendly-looking flowers and farmhouses. Darger made his figures by tracing and modifying images from magazines, newspapers, coloring books, and comics, then repeating them to build populous scenes of highly stylized violence and motion. The overall effect is at once terrifying and oddly cozy, something like a cross between the Bayeux tapestry and a Dick-and-Jane reader. In his appropriation of imagery from popular culture, his range (few outsiders are both writers and visual artists), and his sheer output (Realms is the longest imaginative prose-work ever written), Darger is a singular creator. Girls on the Run, full of color and movement and characters with names like Mary Ann and Tommy, is loosely based on his work (the poem’s title is followed by the words ‘after Henry Darger’).


Darger image 2

Like Girls on the Run itself, Ashbery’s reading was a curious encounter between insider and outsider. In his prefatory remarks Ashbery distanced himself from Darger by means of a benign wit, joking that it’s not clear how to pronounce Darger’s name (i.e., hard or soft g), because ‘he didn’t know anybody.’ Ashbery’s account of seeing Darger’s work at the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne assumed that Darger was insane: unlike the work of the other artists in the museum, who seemed to be ‘contained in their insanity,’ Darger’s work showed an artist trying to break out.[ 1 ] Commenting after the reading on the possibility of a Hollywood movie based on Darger’s life (plans for which have apparently fallen through), Ashbery joked about a movie depicting ‘the life of one Collyer brother.’[ 2 ] And when asked about his interest in Darger’s work, Ashbery offered a variation on his response in a 1999 New York Times interview, speaking of his boyhood fascination with girl culture and the beauty of girls’ dresses — rickrack, smocking, and dotted swiss. ‘You could dress really well for five dollars,’ Ashbery said. The audience laughed. Here is Ashbery’s 1999 comment:

The girls are constantly under attack by violent enemy forces and being saved and surviving storms and evil armies. I was fascinated by little girls when I was a little boy, and their clothes and their games and their dolls appealed to me much more than what little boys are doing. Therefore I was sort of ostracized. (Rehak 15)

Like Rick Blaine’s explanation that he came to Casablanca for the waters, Ashbery’s explanation defies plausibility and is, I think, meant to be recognized as doing so. It acknowledges only indirectly the most obvious feature of Darger’s work — the gruesome violence done unto the (often naked) bodies of girl children, focusing instead on the averting of that violence (‘being saved and surviving’) and offering a remarkable non sequitur in the recollection of childhood interest in what American boys once called ‘girl-stuff.’ Darger’s work of course is no more about girl-stuff than is the doll-art of the German surrealist Hans Bellmer.

Ashbery’s explanation of his interest seems even more implausible when one recognizes that his experience of Darger’s art is far from cursory. His prefatory remarks noted four different encounters that preceded Girls on the Run — seeing Darger’s paintings in Lausanne, in Heidelberg (the Prinzhorn Collection), in Manhattan (the Phyllis Kind Gallery), and in books.[ 3 ] Given Ashbery’s distaste for explaining his work, I suspect that his responses to the Times and at the Museum were meant to be charmingly inscrutable — eliding the question of the sheer weirdness of Darger’s work, associating the work with lost Americana (dotted swiss and such), and representing his own boyhood under the sign of the sissy.

But after his reading, Ashbery said something that points to a deeper artistic relationship with Darger. Responding to an audience question about why he chose Darger’s work as a subject, Ashbery said that he didn’t choose Darger. Rather, he felt that he was chosen by seeing Darger’s work. The difference in Ashbery’s tone here was striking — no more jokes about pronunciation or a lone Collyer brother or dotted swiss.

Darger image 4

Whatever else Girls on the Run is, it is testimony to a profound relationship between imaginative artists. I see two kinds of artistic relationships that help to account for Ashbery’s interest in Darger and, thus, for Girls on the Run. One involves marked affinities between Darger and other strange, singular creators who have long been important to Ashbery — Joseph Cornell, Raymond Roussel, and the imaginary Ern Malley, whose life-stories seem in various ways prefigurings of Darger’s.[ 4 ] A second more surprising relation concerns Darger and Ashbery himself. Despite Ashbery’s familiar insistence that his poetry is not specifically autobiographical (and that passages which appear to be autobiographical are not), a poem from Your Name Here offers an instance of genuine, unguarded autobiography that suggests a deeply personal identification with Henry Darger.

‘Outwardly routine and inwardly fabulous’:
Darger and Cornell

Ashbery has long been engaged with Joseph Cornell’s work. In his foreword to Mary Ann Caws’ Joseph Cornell’s Theater of the Mind, he recalls the ‘shock’ of seeing Cornell’s work in Life magazine when he was ten (9). ‘Pantoum’ from Some Trees (1956), with its ‘vague snow of many clay pipes,’ has been reprinted with the subtitle ‘Homage to Saint-Simon, Ravel, and Joseph Cornell’ (Ashton 119–120). Ashbery’s review of the Guggenheim’s 1967 Cornell exhibit ends with a generous, reverent sentence: ‘We all live in his enchanted forest’ (Reported Sightings 18). Hotel Lautréamont (1992) features a Cornell collage on its cover.

Photo of cover of Hotel Laureamont
At least three critics have suggested a Cornell-Darger connection. Arthur Danto first pointed to similarities in personality (left unexplained) and technique (the use of photo-enlargements and collage) (36). Michael Bonesteel has sketched more extensive parallels: Cornell and Darger both suffered the critical loss of their fathers, lacked art training, worked on long-lived projects, were preoccupied by 19th-century subjects, and focused their emotional energies on young girls (17). (One could add a shared penchant for ‘collecting’ — Cornell’s clay pipes, Woolworth glassware, and dossiers on singers and ballerinas; Darger’s Pepto-Bismol bottles, homemade balls of string, and newspaper clippings of photographs and comics.)

Bonesteel’s parallels are suggestive, though it is an oversimplification to describe Cornell as untrained: as Danto points out, Cornell’s art has ‘genuine art-world explanations’ (36). Andrew Epstein, writing about Girls on the Run, finds in Cornell and Darger ‘the effort to see the world as a child does’ (23), citing Ashbery’s memorable characterization of Cornell’s work:

[T]he genius of Cornell is that he sees and enables us to see with the eyes of childhood, before our vision got clouded by experience, when objects like a rubber ball or a pocket mirror seemed charged with meaning, and a marble rolling across a wooden floor could be as portentous as a passing comet. (Reported Sightings 15)

Here the correspondence is less persuasive. Darger gives us a world of children (and their monstrous assailants), but not a world seen with the eyes of childhood: it is impossible to find in his work the magic of the ordinary that one finds in Cornell. If Cornell restores magic to everyday objects, Darger subjects them to his own alchemy, appropriating coloring-book and advertising images as characters for his personal cosmos. And while Cornell’s work often delights children (his 1972 exhibition at Cooper Union was for children only), I suspect that most children would deem Darger’s work merely ‘gross’ (as do mine). ‘Eeeeeeeewwwww’ was the reaction of gallery owner Phyllis Kind’s children (Eskin 10).

But Cornell and Darger do have significant affinities. What might be particularly important for Ashbery is that the profound disjunction between everyday routine and imaginative life he has sensed in Cornell is a crucial part of the Darger story as well. As Ashbery wrote of Cornell in 1967, ‘One imagines that his day-to-day existence in Queens must be as outwardly routine and inwardly fabulous as Kant’s in Koenigsberg’ (Reported Sightings 15). Compare this passage by Darger’s landlord, photographer Nathan Lerner, describing his discovery of his tenant’s art and writing after Darger left his room for a nursing home. After recounting Darger’s daily routine of church-going and garbage-scavenging, Lerner writes that ‘not until I looked under all the debris in his room did I become aware of the incredible world that Henry had created from within himself. It was only in the last days of Henry Darger’s life that I came close to knowing who this shuffling old man really was’ (Prokopoff 2).

The reclusive old man in the unlikely setting who turns out to be a remarkable creator: such was the story played out on Queens’ Utopia Parkway and Chicago’s Webster Avenue.

Darger image 6 Storm Brewing


‘Alone, cut off from the world,... works almost constantly’: Darger and Roussel

Ashbery has written more and more frequently about Raymond Roussel than about any other writer or artist.[ 5 ] For Ashbery, Roussel has long been the archetype of the strange, singular creator. Perhaps Roussel now shares that honor with Darger.

There are several specific affinities between Roussel and Darger (which, I suspect, are as apparent to Ashbery as they are to me). Roussel and Darger both lived lives of utter strangeness — ‘almost undecodable as normal human behavior,’ as Ashbery says of Roussel (Other Traditions 57). Both endured general mockery (the nickname ‘Crazy’ followed Darger from childhood into adulthood: one might compare the inventories of mockery in Roussel’s essay ‘How I Wrote Certain of My Books’ and Darger’s handwritten autobiography). With utter conviction, both created works that were embraced by audiences on terms they could not have anticipated (Surrealist interest in Roussel, postmodern interest in Darger as proto-Pop-artist). Both were absorbed in immensely time-consuming creative work: as Roussel’s psychiatrist described him, ‘He lives alone, cut off from the world, in a way which seems sad but which suffices to fill him with joy, for he works almost constantly’ (qtd. in Ashbery, ‘Introduction’ x). Each has become ‘a posthumous celebrity,’ as Ashbery calls Roussel (‘Introduction’ vii), and each left behind enormous works in a trunk.[ 6 ]

Ashbery’s characterization of Roussel’s work — ‘like the perfectly preserved temple of a cult which has disappeared without a trace, or a complicated set of tools whose use cannot be discovered’ (‘Introduction’ xxii) — might well apply to the enigma of Darger’s work. But there is a striking specific resemblance as well: both Roussel and Darger exhibit a penchant for endless, disproportionate description.

As Ashbery says of Impressions d’Afrique (1910), plot in Roussel’s writing is ‘a pretext for description’ (‘Introduction’ xvii). Roussel’s narrative poem La Doublure (1897), for instance, begins as a love story and devotes three-fourths of its length to a description of carnival floats and costumes. The three long descriptive poems of La Vue (1904) include La Source, which begins and ends with a café setting but focuses in-between (for 992 of its 1012 lines) on the scene on the label of a bottle of mineral water. Locus Solus (1914) offers a series of elaborate descriptions of elaborate inventions.

The endlessly descriptive prose of any Darger battle scene, with its ‘overwhelmingly obsessive and oppressive detail,’ ‘avalanches of detail’ (MacGregor, Henry Darger 107, 109), might serve as an analogue here, but descriptive writing of even greater eccentricity can be found in Darger’s often-described 5000-page autobiography, The History of My Life: after roughly 200 pages tracing the author’s life, the writing is given over to describing the course of an imaginary tornado named Sweetie Pie.[ 7 ] That the availability of Darger’s work involves a unexpected French connection — the first extended study of his work, by John MacGregor, was published in French translation — deepens the serendipitous Roussel-Darger relation.

‘Nobody had any idea’: Darger and Malley

Photo of Ern Malley
Photo: Ern Malley


Perhaps the most remarkable of these affinities are those in which Henry Darger’s life imitates art. Darger’s story is in many respects a version of the life of Ern Malley, a poet Ashbery first read in 1945 and a poet of abiding interest to the so-called New York School.[ 8 ] Like Malley, Darger lost both parents in youth and suffered a drastic shift in life circumstances (for Malley, a move from Liverpool to Petersham, Australia; for Darger, institutionalization).

Both struck out on their own at the age of seventeen for a life of work (Malley by moving to Melbourne, Darger by escaping from an asylum). Each lived a solitary life in a proverbial room: ‘They said he was living in a room by himself,’ Ethel Malley wrote to Max Harris (Malley 10). And each left behind a body of work whose existence could not have been imagined: ‘Nobody had any idea that Ern Malley wrote poetry,’ wrote Max Harris (Malley 9).

Making his art in isolation, making no effort toward finding an audience, Ern Malley seems to haunt Ashbery’s most pointed statements about art and its reception. Consider this statement from an essay on the artist Owen Morrel:

We don’t hear much about struggling young artists anymore. That stereotype has been replaced in the public imagination by the artist who becomes a millionaire at thirty by painting soup cans. The garret has become a half-acre loft with white floors. (Reported Sightings 351)

If the choice must be between stereotypes, it is clear which one Ashbery finds more congenial. His essay ‘The Invisible Avant-Garde’ also reveals his wariness of institutional acceptance and his sympathy with artists on the margins: ‘the only artists who have any privacy are the handful of decrepit stragglers behind the big booming avant-garde juggernaut’ (Reported Sightings 392). Given Ashbery’s repeated statements about his early doubts of having a book published (much less a book that would gain an audience), his allegiance to ‘decrepit stragglers’ seems a matter of long-felt identification.

‘The History of My Life’: Darger and Ashbery

The identification of insider with outsider becomes particularly poignant when we think further about Darger and Ashbery. Certainly there are artistic affinities between them — most notably their shared fascination with the primal reading-matter of comics and their collaging of found material.[ 9 ] But I think that a deeper, more personal identification helps to account for Darger’s claim on Ashbery’s imagination. Girls on the Run signals such an identification early on:

                                               Write it now, Tidbit said,
before they get back. And, quivering, I took the pen.
Drink the beautiful tea
before you slop sewage over the horizon, the Principal directed.
OK, it’s calm now, but it wasn’t two minutes ago. What do you want me to do,
said Henry,
I am no longer your serf,
and if I was I wouldn’t do your bidding. (1–2)

Details of life circumstances — Ashbery’s and Darger’s — help clarify what happens in this passage. The initial ‘I’ who drinks tea and writes appears to be Ashbery, who has cited tea-drinking as his writing ritual. The Henry who defies authority is of course Henry Darger, who was often heard in his room acting out quarrels with the rather severe nun who was his supervisor at work.[10] But in the play of voices in these lines, the distinction between the poet and Henry blurs: in the words of the Principal’s directive, the poet who drinks tea and the hospital orderly who slops sewage become one and the same. And though the speaker who replies to the Principal seems at first to be the poet (the ‘I’ who took the pen and was told to drink tea), he turns out to be Henry. ‘I’ is, literally, another. One wonders whether Henry’s defiant tone at the end of the passage — ‘I am no longer your serf’ — suggests Ashbery’s own refusal in Girls on the Run to write the kind of poem that the Principal (Harold Bloom? Helen Vendler?) might expect of him.[11]

This passage from Girls is at best oblique autobiography. Your Name Here, however, has a poem that is more straightforwardly autobiographical. It might be read as an Ashbery variation on Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Art of Losing’:

Once upon a time there were two brothers.
Then there was only one: myself.

I grew up fast, before learning to drive,
even. There was I: a stinking adult.

I thought of developing interests
someone might take an interest in. No soap.

I became very weepy for what had seemed
like the pleasant early years. As I aged

increasingly, I also grew more charitable
with regard to my thoughts and ideas,

thinking them at least as good as the next man’s.
Then a great devouring cloud

came and loitered on the horizon, drinking
it up, for what seemed like months or years. (31)

While Ashbery has insisted in many contexts that his poetry is not autobiographical, ‘The History of My Life’ is genuinely grounded in the facts of his life.[12] What is more: the poem is a further gesture of identification with Henry Darger, taking as its title the title of Darger’s handwritten autobiography.

In Ashbery’s hands, this portentous title might seem only comic — like that of Ted Berrigan’s ‘My Autobiography,’ a poem which goes on to recount an incident in the life of an upstairs neighbor. Certainly Ashbery’s poem is replete with knowing, witty touches — ‘even,’ ‘interests’ and ‘interest,’ ‘No soap,’ ‘I became very weepy,’ ‘increasingly,’ ‘thoughts and ideas.’ But the comedy fails to obscure a narrative that takes the Ashbery-Darger connection beyond aesthetics into shared matters of loss and grief. Ashbery did lose his younger brother Richard in childhood (Lehman 92). It is generally recognized that the decisive events in Darger’s psychic life occurred in 1896, when he was four: his mother died shortly after giving birth, and his newborn sister was immediately given up for adoption. In his 1999 New York Times interview Ashbery spoke of his own childhood precisely in terms of sudden, irrevocable loss. For a reader with even a cursory knowledge of Darger’s life, the parallel is unmistakable:

We had a mythical kingdom in the woods; various of our friends had castles in trees, and I was always trying to get plays that we could produce spontaneously. Then my younger brother died just around the beginning of World War II. The group dispersed for various reasons, and things were never as happy or romantic as they’d been, and my brother was no longer there. I think I’ve always been trying to get back to this mystical kingdom. (Rehak 10)

Darger image 5

In his History Darger laments the fact of age: ‘I wished to be young always. I am grown up now and an old lame man, darn it’ (Bonesteel 240). In Ashbery’s ‘History’ too, time is the enemy. The very idea of temporal sequence, in the form of the word then, introduces the poem’s first, sudden loss (ending the timeless once-upon-a-time of brotherhood) and its second, gradual one, the ever-diminishing horizon. As in the Gilgamesh narrative, the death of a brother presages the loss of one’s own life: ‘Then there was only one,’ and eventually there is no one. It is hardly coincidental that The History of My Life and ‘The History of My Life’ both end with destructive weather: the ‘great devouring cloud’ recalls the imaginary tornado whose path of destruction accounts for the last 4800 pages of Darger’s 5000-page autobiography.[13]

Like the poet of ‘The History of My Life,’ characters in Girls on the Run are preoccupied by mortality. Like Iliadic heroes, they philosophize about it on the battlefield:

Judy: ‘[O]ur fashions are in fashion / only briefly, then they go out.’ (3)

Aunt Clara: ‘The stealth of the horizon / nears us.’ (17)

Phoebe: ‘Whoever thinks he / can outwit the sun is in for a rude awakening.’ (31)

Trevor the dog: ‘In time... we all go under the fluted covers / of this great world, with its spiral dissonances.’ (35)

Laure: ‘[N]ight is coming, than which there will be none bigger.’ (39)

Thus Judy and company can never remain in one place for very long. They move from encampment to encampment and from chapter to chapter; at one point girls are ‘taken for a ride / into the next chapter’ (6). There are twenty-one such chapters (or sections), bringing us to the unlucky number of official adulthood by the poem’s end. As in ‘The Instruction Manual,’ one cannot stay — in a dream-vision of Guadalajara, or in childhood: ‘Did you read that book I was telling you about? Ach, it concerns puberty’ (46).

Girls on the Run ends on an elegiac note reminiscent of Eliot’s ‘East Coker’ (‘O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark’):

                                                                                                           They closed
the place, the food court, they all
have gone away, it’s restless, and mighty, as an ark
to the storm, yet the letter
of the law is obeyed, and sometimes the spirit
in forgotten tales of the seekers — O who were they?
Mary Ann, and Jimmy — no, but who were they?
Who have as their mantles on the snow
and we shall never reach land
before dark, yet who knows what advises them,
discreet in the mayhem? And then it’s bright in the defining pallor of their day.
Does this clinch anything? We were cautioned once, told not to venture out —
yet I’d offer this much, this leaf, to thee.
Somewhere, darkness churns and answers are riveting,
taking on a fresh look, a twist. A carousel is burning.
The wide avenue smiles. (52–53)

In the midst of life we are in death, yes, but also still in life: ‘we shall never reach land / before dark,’ but ‘then it’s bright,’ and there is still a ‘fresh look, a twist.’ ‘Old men ought to be explorers,’ Eliot says in ‘East Coker’, and indeed Ashbery is one in this strange and beautiful poem. And young people should be explorers too. With the Eden of childhood lost, with the way back barred (by a flaming carousel?), Ashbery’s girls go on, venturing and adventuring, with the world all before them. In this epic of life on the run, ‘the spirit of going is to go’ (6), even if one is running westward.


Notes

[ 1 ] An extended discussion of diagnosis can be found in MacGregor’s Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal (656–665).

[ 2 ] The fabled Collyer brothers were recluses whose bodies were found in 1947 amid the tons of debris in their Manhattan brownstone. Darger’s room held, among other objects, hundreds of empty Pepto-Bismol bottles and homemade balls of string.

[ 3 ] The two books available prior to the publication of Girls on the Run were John MacGregor’s Henry J. Darger: Dans les Royaumes de l’irréel and Stephen Prokopoff’s catalogue Henry Darger: The Unreality of Being. In what follows I assume Ashbery’s familiarity with some basic facts of Darger’s life and works, as then available in these books.

[ 4 ] Scattered resemblances (artistic, not biographical) also suggest Joe Brainard, whose flowers, Madonnas, and kitsch-materials all have their analogues in Darger’s work. One eerily specific similarity: both Brainard and Darger use Christmas and Easter Seals as decorative borders. See for instance Brainard’s I’m Not Really Flying I’m Thinking, framed by Easter Seals (Lewallen 33). For Darger’s use of Madonnas and Christmas Seals, see for instance Anderson (122–123) and MacGregor, Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal (118).

[ 5 ] Ashbery traces his work on Roussel in Other Traditions (45–48). More recently he has contributed a foreword to Mark Ford’s Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams (2001).

[ 6 ] Among Roussel’s posthumously discovered works: a 632-page play and a 1575-page ‘verse chronicle,’ both in alexandrines (Roussel 35). Not quite Darger-length, but still impressive.

[ 7 ] Extended excerpts from Darger’s autobiography became readily available with the publication of Michael Bonesteel’s Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings, but the title and unusual nature of this work were known long before.

[ 8 ] Ern Malley was the creation of James McAuley and Harold Stewart, two Australian soldiers out to parody modernist poetry. For Ashbery’s and Kenneth Koch’s interest in Malley’s work, see Michael Heyward’s ‘The Ern Malley Affair’ and David Lehman’s ‘The Ern Malley Poetry Hoax — Introduction,’ both in Jacket 17 (June 2002). Ashbery and John Kinsella have been writing poems (individually) as responses to Malley poems, to be published as a volume.

[ 9 ] Darger constructed massively thick scrapbooks of clipped daily comics. For Ashbery’s main uses of comics, see the Popeye sestina ‘Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape’ (The Double Dream of Spring, 1970) and ‘Daffy Duck in Hollywood’ (Houseboat Days, 1977). Ashbery’s most famous use of found material involves William Le Queux’s Beryl of the Biplane (1917), the book that furnishes much of the content of ‘Europe’ (The Tennis Court Oath, 1962). Beryl, an aviatrix who shoots down zeppelins and saves military secrets, now looks like a grown-up version of a plucky, resourceful Vivian Girl. Like Darger, Ashbery has drawn upon children’s books: Three Hundred Things a Bright Boy Can Do (by ‘Many Hands,’ 1911) provides material for ‘The Skaters’ (Rivers and Mountains, 1966). John Shoptaw notes that after ‘Europe’ Ashbery made a poem from Franklin W. Dixon’s Hardy Boys novel The Secret of the Old Mill (359).

[10] ‘I’ve never tried Schiller’s rotten apples, but I do drink tea while I write, and that is about the only time I do drink tea’ (Stitt 406). In his memoir of his tenant, Nathan Lerner describes these imaginary conversations (Prokopoff 1). The clash between the Principal and Henry (who soon threatens that his ambition will burn on the shore) recalls the clash between Agamemnon and Achilles that begins the Iliad and is one of many Homeric touches in Ashbery’s poem.

[11] Bloom’s only published comment on Girls on the Run is the bland blurb on the back of the paperback edition: ‘Ashbery’s Girls on the Run, like its charming Peggy, is a poem both persnickety and “frequently at the heart of things.” It will make its readers happier and wiser. This is our universal poet, as Walt Whitman was before him.’ One imagines Bloom asking, ‘This is our universal poet?’ Vendler has written nothing about the volume.

[12] In a 1999 interview Ashbery gave the following response to a question about John Shoptaw’s On the Outside Looking Out:

My poetry I don’t think is autobiographical. The parts that sound autobiographical — such as ‘Jean and Marcy and the kids’ — don’t exist. Other parts that don’t sound it are in fact autobiographical. In general my own autobiography doesn’t interest me as material for poetry (Boddy 21).

[13] Darger was obsessed with weather from childhood; his work is filled with storms and floods. From 1957 to 1967 he kept a daily weather journal, recording the endless discrepancies between forecast and fact.

Works Cited

Anderson, Brooke Davis, Darger: The Henry Darger Collection at the American Folk Art Museum. New York: American Folk Art Museum, 2001.

Ashbery, John, Foreword. Joseph Cornell’s Theater of the Mind: Selected Diaries, Letters, and Files. Ed. Mary Ann Caws. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1993. 9–12.

——, Girls on the Run: A Poem. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.

——, Introduction. How I Wrote Certain of My Books and Other Writings. By Raymond Roussel. Ed. Trevor Winkfield. Boston: Exact Change, 1995. vii–xxii.

——, Other Traditions. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.

——, Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles, 1957–1987. Ed. David Bergman. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991.

——, Your Name Here: Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.

Ashton, Dore, ed. A Joseph Cornell Album. New York: Da Capo, 1974.

Boddy, Kasia, ‘John Ashbery in Conversation.’ PN Review Jan.–Feb. 1999: 18–21.

Bonesteel, Michael, Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings. New York: Rizzoli, 2000.

Danto, Arthur C., ‘Outsider Art.’ Nation 10 March 1997: 33–36.

Epstein, Andrew, ‘Turning the Steep Corner into Childhood.’ [Review of Girls on the Run.] American Book Review May–June 2000: 23–24.

Eskin, Leah, ‘Henry Darger Moves Out.’ Chicago Tribune 17 Dec. 2000: 10.

Lehman, David, The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets. New York: Doubleday, 1998.

Lewallen, Constance, Joe Brainard: A Retrospective. Berkeley and New York: Berkeley Art Museum, University of California; Granary Books, 2001.

MacGregor, John M., Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal. New York: Delano Greenidge, 2002.

——, Henry J. Darger: Dans les Royaumes de l’irréel. Trans. Aline Weill and Bernard Hoepffner. Lausanne: Collection de l’Art Brut, 1996.

Malley, Ern, The Darkening Ecliptic. Melbourne: Reed & Harris, 1944.

Prokopoff, Stephen, Henry Darger: The Unreality of Being. Iowa City: University of Iowa Museum of Art, 1996.

Rehak, Melanie, ‘A Child in Time.’ New York Times Magazine 4 Apr. 1999: 15.

Roussel, Raymond, ‘How I Wrote Certain of My Books’ and Other Writings. Ed. Trevor Winkfield. Boston: Exact Change, 1995.

Shoptaw, John, On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery’s Poetry. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Stitt, Peter, ‘John Ashbery.’ [Interview.] Poets at Work: The Paris Review Interviews. Ed. George Plimpton. New York: Penguin, 1989. 387–412.


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