On my final project, “Reading John Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath

For my final project I will propose to mine John Ashbery’s papers at Harvard’s Houghton Library to produce an online companion and bibliography to Ashbery’s second published collection, The Tennis Court Oath. I’m particularly interested in The Tennis Court Oath because it is, by my reading, one of Ashbery’s most hermetically-sealed books, which resists bibliographical or biographical reading. There is relatively little scholarship dedicated to the book, although it was enormously important to a group of New York School and Language poets whose work is the subject of much study; Bill Berkson said, in a Jacket interview “The Tennis Court Oath was the most important of John’s books for my generation of poets.”

My project will attempt to answer the following questions, to whatever degree is possible: what material did Ashbery consult when he composed The Tennis Court Oath? What processes did he apply in its composition? Ashbery composed the book while studying the works of Raymond Roussel in Paris—did Roussel’s work make an impact? How? Beyond these questions, what I really hope to examine with this project is: what are the limitations of bibliographical or biographical readings of poetry? What are the affective differences between close and bibliographical readings, and why do those differences matter in the context of poetry?

In addition to the online companion, I will propose to produce a lyric essay that details my experiences and inevitable disappointments in the archives, and my struggles with the above questions. In this class we have discussed “disappointment” as an affective mode of engaging with archival material. I believe that John Ashbery’s archive might be a productive place to investigate archival disappointment, not only in a sense of what is not available in the archive, but also in a sense of what extant archival material cannot say about Ashbery’s work.

Ashbery’s copyright is strictly managed, and I imagine it will be difficult or impossible to publicly reproduce digitized annotations, letters, notes, and manuscript papers pertinent to The Tennis Court Oath. For this reason, my project will follow in the footsteps of Jeff Twitchell-Waas’s Z-Site (“A Companion to the Works of Louis Zukofsky”) in that it will not be a repository, but rather a scaffolding of named resources around The Tennis Court Oath to further inquiry or scholarship.