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Talk about Ashbery

In response to:

Boysenberry Sherbet from the October 16, 1975 issue

To the Editors:

Because I am a reader I am a bit unnerved by Irvin Ehrenpreis telling me, in his review of John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror [NYR, October 16], what, as a reader, my responses to an Ashbery poem are: “his work will tire nearly all his readers.” “So many readers are dismayed when they try (intelligently and seriously) to enjoy his poems.” “Their fragmentary, disjointed, or maddeningly evasive nature not only baffles but bores the reader.” I think it would have been clearer if instead of “readers” Professor Ehrenpreis had said “my students,” because ultimately what he conveys to us in his review is not that Ashbery’s poems are boring to read, but that they are boring to teach, boring to talk about. They don’t have much in the way of themes. There is so little meat to leave one’s teeth marks on.

There is room in our literature for John Ashbery,” he says. I’ll go along with that. But then in talking about poems such as Ashbery’s, Professor Ehrenpreis says, “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.” This is a chillingly self-satisfied listing. And it is what an Ashbery poem is not and does not do.

An Ashbery poem is not an evanescent composition of sensations. It is a composite of images so exact that they instantly strike us as God’s truth. As Eliot pointed out in his Preface to Perse’s Anabasis, “There is a logic of the imagination as well as a logic of concepts. People who do not appreciate poetry always find it difficult to distinguish between order and chaos in the arrangement of images”; and later, “such an arrangement of imagery requires just as much ‘fundamental brainwork’ as the arrangement of an argument.” But Professor Ehrenpreis shrewdly quotes none of the imagery. Instead, he searches out those lines that come closest to fitting into his preconceived idea of what poetry should be: “A glance, a ballade / That takes in the whole world, now, but lightly, / Still lightly, but with wide authority and tact.” These are lines that could have been written by anyone being pushed around the room by a lyrical urge. But they are the kind of lines that please Ehrenpreis and give him a chance to say, “So Ashbery tries to make us act out the division between workaday reality and those moments of transcendence that are like moments of love or of mystical communion.”

Ashbery does no such thing. The lover may drop in to say goodbye to us in a few of the poems, and some of the poems may seem to have been written just at that moment the towels are beginning their trip to the laundry, but there are no requests for us to “act out a division” and we are never asked to imagine what is not shown to us. I am not so sure that a book by Ashbery shouldn’t be given to an art critic to review instead of to an English professor.

The astonishing imagery that is so visually right and so carefully eschewed by Ehrenpreis does not need to be quoted here. Any reader who has tried (“intelligently and seriously”) to read Ashbery’s poetry cannot help but claim a few for himself. (I who slop varmints every day of my life often accuse them of being “sullen fecundity to be watched over,” and I now find it impossible to stare down a row of diminishing white fenceposts without thinking “nudity.”)

But it is not the remarkable images in isolation that is Ashbery’s achievement. It is the connotative methods he has devised to organize them. One of these methods, the one that is so exhilarating, is the tremendous distances that are traveled between the poems’ opening and closing lines. But Professor Ehrenpreis says, and this statement scares me to death: “When one has shown there is purpose in his method, one has not endowed the method with the attributes rightfully to be sought in poetry.” The major of these rightful attributes, it is implied, is shapeliness. “If a poet does find most of reality meaningless, he is ill-advised to proportion his verses accordingly, and to deal out lengths of murk as settings for brief illuminations.”

Murk as background. I cannot think of one poet, Dante included, who has given me one good murky background, and I went back to Self-Portrait to see if I could find some lengths of murk. There were none, of course, but there were some awfully nice backgrounds such as this: “Nameless shrubs running across a field / That didn’t drain last year and / Isn’t draining this year to fall short / Like waves at the end of a lake, / Each with a little sigh, / Are you sure this is what the pure day / With its standing light intends?” I could be looking at a landscape in the background of a Renaissance painting.

Professor Ehrenpreis has another complaint about the poems: “I find it sinister that the most successful one in his new book—the last and longest of the collection—deals with the theory behind it.” In other words, how dare the poem claim dibs on a domain that is rightfully the critic’s. But I think that Professor Ehrenpreis is issuing a warning here: Ashbery’s work is going to be slim pickings for the exegesis freaks. At least for those who seek rightful attributes….

Robert Brotherson

Andes, New York

Irvin Ehrenpreis replies:

I don’t know why Mr. Brotherson should give himself an air of integrity while attributing to me attitudes and conduct that have never been mine. I do not lecture to any class on the poetry of Ashbery; I do not assign it to students or discuss it in a classroom. My comments on the usual responses of most sympathetic readers were based on conversations over a period of five years with young poets or habitual readers of poetry, including a number who had heard Ashbery read his poems aloud, a few who had met him, and several who admired his work. The sentence Mr. Brotherson derides (“They teach,” etc.) does not, as he implies, deal with the form of a typical poem by Ashbery; it is an attempt to suggest the kind of imaginative response to routine life that lies behind the poems, and it is based to some extent on hints supplied by Ashbery himself in published remarks. In my experience, directly contrary to what Mr. Brotherson asserts, Ashbery’s poems are indeed more exciting to talk about than to read, and it is precisely this quality that gives them much of their reputation. It ill becomes the supporters of literature to sneer at university teachers. An American must live far out of the world if he imagines that in this country poets like Ashbery would be better known and better appreciated if there were no place for their work in our colleges of arts and sciences.

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