Poet in the Wings

John Ashbery
John Ashbery; drawing by David Levine

Most of us, if we read modern poetry at all, approach it half in faith and half in fear. Faith that a self-represented craftsman in words may have found a new utterance to offer us, or at least reconstituted an old one in this world of fading palimpsests. Fear on two possible counts: either that we may miss the crucial clues that would tell us if a poem is moving or funny or dirty; or that, if we take seriously texts with little ascertainable meaning and none of the traditional characteristics of poetry, we are falling for a high-level hoax. There are few secure readers of modern poetry, and John Ashbery is not the poet to renew the confidence of the faint-hearted.

Having published ten collections in twenty-five years, Ashbery has created a solid literary reputation as an intelligent, subtle, often obscure poet, whose diction has gradually relaxed toward informality. There has been little shift in his basically paratactic construction. During prolonged residence in Paris in the Fifties and Sixties, Ashbery heeded Eliot’s advice to poets: “Do something else.” He became an art critic and journalist and returned to New York in 1965 to work for seven years as executive editor of Art News. Ashbery’s essays have appeared in widely dispersed magazines like Bizarre (Paris) and The New Yorker, generally on topics related to his own work—Gertrude Stein, Raymond Roussel, and the dynamics of experiment in the arts. He controls an impressively wide culture with a minimum of display. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror collected three major prizes in 1976 and has sold nearly 20,000 copies.

Houseboat Days presents thirty-nine poems that vary in length from four lines to sixteen pages. Ashbery uses varying line lengths, neither stressed nor syllabic, no rhyme, no typographical tricks, conventional punctuation (one poem is unpunctuated), occasional prose passages, and few marked auditory or rhetorical effects. He is content to appear in very sober garb. The titles are not helpful; “Houseboat Days” remains cryptic even if one hears an echo of “Washboat Days,” a book about the era of the bateau lavoir and the Paris cubists. Though one often glimpses the aftermath of parties and other social encounters, these are basically meditative poems. Ashbery gives the impression of a person working without distraction to raise the poetry table in our mental landscape rather than to tap off memorable lines for special occasions. The striking figures that do occur usually transfix a mental state. “Our gestures have taken us farther into the day / Than tomorrow will understand. / They live us.” “Self-knowledge frosts each action, each step taken / Freely.”

It is because Ashbery writes without histrionics and purple passages that he inspires both faith and fear. His confident, unemphatic voice makes us wonder if there is a rebus logic at work in the lines protecting them from immediate understanding. Several considerations underlie Ashbery’s obscurity. Indirection…

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