When it was first announced, John Ashbery’s new book had a title—Paradoxes and Oxymorons—that called up Donne’s Paradoxes and Problems (the usual title for a collection of short pieces circulated privately in Donne’s lifetime and posthumously published). Ashbery’s witty variation placed propositional impossibility (paradox) next to figurative impossibility (oxymoron) to tell us that he was about to propose the contradictions of life in the contradictions of rhetoric. An oxymoron (“dazzling darkness”) is a paradox compressed into a single self-contradicting phrase, and is therefore the show-off among figures of speech.
A poetry composed of paradoxes and oxymorons—whatever the content of either—announces, by its use of these two figures, that things cannot to the will be settled (as Keats put it); that life, when thought about, gives rise to the ultimately frustrating conviction that things are and are not, can be and cannot be, must be and will not be—that life famishes where most it satisfies. The great source book in English literature for paradoxes and oxymorons of Ashbery’s sort is Shakespeare’s Sonnets—where life is consumed with that which it was nourished by, where blackness turns fair, and loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.
If the reflective and discursive verse of paradox represents one extreme of lyric, the opposite extreme is song. Song and reflection are the two sources of lyric, and poems move along a continuum between them. Song alone is tenuous, and reflection alone is ponderous; song requires some ballast of analysis, and reflection requires some leaven of buoyancy. When song and reflection join, lyric is born. All lyrics tend toward one or the other of the extremes, and must be judged according to their kind: if Ashbery’s new book hovers toward the pole of reflective analysis (however bizarre), Louise Glück’s Descending Figure (her third book) leans to the pole of song. I hasten to add that Ashbery’s rhythms are as seductive as ever, and that Glück’s poems exemplify Lowell’s remark about poets’ mental processes—“We thought in images.” Glück’s weighted images move magnetically toward configurations; they glow toward each other in responsive understanding; they cohere in constellations. Ashbery’s sentences are not centripetal; their orbits are long ellipses, full of the irregularities of planetary distraction. Or, like sociable comets, they trail a dispersal of attention behind them that nonetheless assembles into a coda, something visible.
It is easy to imagine Glück’s poems being set to music as a song-sequence; they have the intensity of a chain of emblematically significant moments, fixed in time. Ashbery’s paradoxes, though, are composed under the aegis of the goddess he calls Forward Animation (who, with her two sister Fates, presides over the soft-sculpture alphabet of life):
The tent stitch is repeated in the blue and red
Letters on the blocks. Love is spelled L-O-V-E
And is echoed farther down by fear. These two are sisters
But the youngest and most beauti- ful sister
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