There is room in our literature for John Ashbery. The poems in his new book are seldom coherent, shapely, or intelligible; neither their sounds nor their rhythms go far to please the ear; they hardly convey the poet’s character in the usual sense. Mr. Ashbery may hope to surprise us agreeably with the leaps or turns of his mind from image to insight and back again; and he may challenge us to make the brightest of these connections ourselves. But most of his work will tire nearly all his readers.
Yet this poetry has its design. Behind much serious writing of the last hundred years lives the belief that the highest use of literature is neither pleasure nor edification. We are hardly supposed to become better citizens by reading Mallarmé or Wallace Stevens. Neither are we supposed merely to titillate ourselves as we would be titillated by an evening of fireworks. The poems in the tradition that prepares us for Ashbery are serious without being conventionally moral. They may delight us, but we say they do more than delight. What then can they accomplish?
One answer is that they bring more of reality into consciousness. They enlarge the world, make us aware of the aspects that do not fit our purposeful careers or our selective view of usefulness. They remind us of the changes and chances of things, of the happy accidents that underlie so much that we claim for deliberate industry. They teach the rewards of passivity, of letting the life of sensation impose its order on us, of enjoying the designs that start up in spite of us, as we raise our eyes from a newspaper while smelling bread in the oven, hearing Brahms on the phonograph, and feeling the heat of a wood fire, all linked in the welcome surprise of a composition that fades at once.
Such poems restore the freshness and sharpness of preconscious impressions, the unclouded moments of pure feeling, like the first time one tasted boysenberry sherbet—before one knew about boysenberries. Language too should be restored by such poetry to the denseness and mystery of words without their primary meaning—the ugliness of “unction,” or as James Schuyler said, “the sinuous beauty of words like allergy / the tonic resonance of / pill when used as in / ‘she is a pill.’ ”
Schuyler, a more gifted poet than Ashbery, can accomplish these ends with verve and wit, a command of language and a visual acuteness that engage the reader, delight him, opening his mind to the excitement of city landscapes, sounds and smells, to rural artifice, to the humorous charm of our objects, books, furniture, and emotions as they evoke and link up with one another, piercingly reminding us of human intimacies.
Ashbery’s response to these things is different. He once described the existence of civilized men today as an effort to cushion themselves against the realities of “alienated life” with chosen objects, art, people, and attitudes. Man’s fate, he has said …
Talk about Ashbery February 19, 1976