by John Ashbery
Knopf, 216 pp., $20.00
Browsing through the recently published Complete Poems of that one-time whiz kid of Soviet poetry, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, I found myself thinking that this is now the sound of poetry for the Soviet public at large. When declaimed it sounds right and natural, the proper noise that a poet should make, just as Tennyson sounded in his own time, or Yeats and Auden in theirs. Without having to use the obvious cliché that this is what it means to be “a major poet,” one could and should say that this is what real achievement in a contemporary poet consists of: he has laid down guidelines and made his mark on the language of the tribe.
John Ashbery is doing that today in America and in the English-speaking world. His early poems and collections—The Tennis Court Oath, Rivers and Mountains—still had the exoticism of new device and a new speech, but his voice today is certainly that of “poetry” as she is now spoke. It is an unemphatic though far from monotonous sound, combining courteously indeterminate distinction with a seeming unawareness of the old idea that poetry should be—as Auden once called it—”memorable speech.” Ashbery in his own way often sounds memorable, yet I should doubt if any of his readers actually carry any sequence of his lines in their memories, or could recall more than a passing phrase. At the same time his lines and sentences have the unusual ability to weave themselves into the reader’s mind, to take over his own silent speech cogitations as a virus takes over and uses the cells of the body. Inside his own head the reader may begin to think and to talk like Ashbery, in the way that a reader fifty or sixty years ago might have been reciting bits of Auden in his head, and taking up for a moment, like Walter Mitty, their appropriate mental stance.
To have sounded, in poetry, the standard tones of the age, is no small feat. Philip Larkin talks in a poem of jazz being, when he was young, “the natural noise of good.” Anything new by Ashbery has become for poetry the natural noise of now. A number of talented poets, for example Steven Vita in America and Mark Ford in England, have begun to sound rather like him, achieving something of the same kind of gripping but unidentifiable monologue. Authoritative and subtly influential as it has become, Ashbery’s natural voice leads us into shopping malls and to visiting the “mottled houseplants” sold to home- makers; to dreaming of a hyena or a great speckled hen and a number of other things that will not last out today, except, perhaps, in the words of this poet, or of others who have come to be like him.
But the sum will get lost anyway
in the crowd, unless drastic measures are taken. And who is to take them?
Because you, walking around comparison-shopping, are its infrastructure
and the only one who will bring it to the edge of a cross-section of the people’s imaginings.
See, there might be already a little canopy over the pier
but more likely not; it’s still early in the season; the river’s rank winter smell
still pierces the air’s musky crevices; the grass isn’t right and
there’s too much pre-freshness. The real thing won’t be around for days, even weeks.
The real thing will probably never be around, but that is not the point. Because we live in contingency a poetry can be wholly contingent and yet make out of that very circumstance its own power to focus and to fascinate the reader’s mind. Because we live in contingency neither the spring nor anything else—as art—comes in the form in which we expect it. Previous dwellers in art, it may be, saw no need to recognize this, but continued to strive for what seemed essential and locate their consciousness in it. Today things seem different. In making its thing of this, Ashbery’s poetry makes use of the way things seem in a manner seemingly close to styles of modern painting and music. Prose, as the matter of ordinary communication, cannot present itself wholly as a medium in the way that poetry and painting and music now can.
This evident, indeed obvious, quality of what he writes explains why Ashbery is baffled and (to judge from interviews) sometimes annoyed at the idea that there is any difficulty in his poetry. To be difficult a poem has to be about something; and the efforts of critics who are themselves baffled to produce a suitable subject matter—love, death, loneliness, Angst—are all OK to a poet who says that any interpretation will do, and that he doesn’t care what meaning his readers find there. Yet this seems a little disingenuous, for it is the special character of the poetry—compared, say, with that of Wallace Stevens—not to proffer but to block off the directions taken by meaning.
Is this a special trick? In a sense, yes. Ashbery’s bland undisturbing clarity has learned how to flow toward, between, and over meaning without rupturing the surface. The continuum diary, as he has called Flow Chart, free associates with the weather and thoughts about the past “and comes up with all kinds of extra material that doesn’t belong—but does.” The poetry is placid, even facile: even making a virtue of this facility, as it does of the contingent. No “intolerable wrestle with words and meanings,” as for T. S. Eliot at his desk—Ashbery never seems to “work” apparently—but a sure, rapid, and effortless natural growth.
Flow Chart, a poem of more than two hundred pages, came into existence in about six weeks. Thought, letter, diary—and yet with communication left out, except in one vital respect. This natural noise of the present hypnotizes the reader and takes him over, or is taken over by him. How the stuff at its best can so grip and absorb—and Flow Chart is Ashbery’s best poem in his own genre to date—is Ashbery’s own trade secret.
If this facility is the key, it negates modernist insistence on the “mystery,” the specialist or hermeneutic knowledge necessary to “read” new music or painting. And Ashbery must needs be less than popular in circles where this expertise is current. (An unusually pungent aside in Flow Chart says, “I will show you fear in a handful of specialists.”) Nor does any kind of Zen intuitiveness seem apposite to the case. It is natural enough to claim, as Christopher Benfey has done in a review in The New Republic, that this poetry “makes enormous demands on the reader to assimilate it,” and that “it’s hard to say precisely what the poem is about” and “what flow it’s meant to chart.” Critics are rightly employed to get to the bottom of these things, but in the case of Ashbery does it matter? His equable flow certainly reminds us how challenging, how up- to-date with an assertiveness asking for the critical process, were Pound and Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens and all modernists in search of an exegete. The postmodernist in Ashbery seems to look for nothing but anonymous and invisible readers; and the transaction should not appear arduous, either to his readers or himself.
But the fact is that the technique associated with postmodernism can be seen to direct us, although probably with no consciousness of doing so, in contradictory ways. On the one hand the medium is the message: words, notes, paint their own separate thing. Asked if an object on the canvas was a man’s back or front Delacroix said it was neither—”C’est la peinture“—and that was long ago. Even before that Wordsworth needed to say that new things must create the taste by which they are to be judged. The see- saw between the demands of a new expertise and the proclamation of a new liberty is in motion all the time. Judgment suits Ashbery no better than interpretation, and yet of course something irrevocably and personally fastidious does emerge from the industrial process which digests his love of art deco and old B movies, and—to quote Webster’s dictionary on the term—shows “the progress of materials through various stages by means of a manufacturing process.” That “schematic diagram,” claims the jacket copy, is “nothing less than the entire poem itself.”
Industry is now old hat in poetry, but perhaps not quite in this sense. Ashbery’s total and seemingly effortless absorption in the dense technology of modern living is a million years away from the days of the Thirties, when poets self-consciously made pylons stride across the uplands like nude giant girls. And yet Ashbery begins with “an emptiness / so sudden it leaves the girders whanging in the absence of wind.” His “newness” has a long history behind it, a history of poetic properties broken down for recycling but suddenly reconstituted in unexpected and effective ways, to lie around like the stranded monster rotting in the reeds of Rimbaud’s Bateau Ivre.
Sad grows the river god
as he oars past us
downstream without our knowing him: for if, he reasons,
he can be overlooked, then to know him would be to eat him,
ingest the name he carries through time to set down
finally, on a strand of rotted hulks. And those who sense something
squeamish in his arrival know enough not to look up
from the page they are reading, the
plaited lines that extend
like a bronze chain into eternity. It seems I was reading
As with early Wallace Stevens there is a suggestion of romantic pastiche; which is natural enough, because from Poe to Mallarmé the romantic impulse in poetry was to avoid meaning (Flow Chart warns that “the force of meaning never extrudes”) in its concentration on the aesthetically beautiful. Of course we, and Ashbery, know that meaning cannot be avoided; but the impulse remains interesting, for Ashbery is clearly in revolt against modern academic and deconstructive practices where poetry is concerned: against the whole apparatus of university English departments. Whether deliberately or not, those departments have downgraded the idea of responding to the “beauty” of poetry, presumably because it might be construed as an elitist approach, the suggestion of a gift possessed by WASPs with hereditary taste buds. No English department I know of now dares to assume that some students have no gift or taste for poetry.
Instead modern critical methods are designed to blur the possibility of such distinctions. Suitably trained, anybody can master the business of reading poetry. Enjoying it may be another matter. The instinct in Ashbery’s poetry—the instinct of one who is essentially a born-again Romantic and Victorian—is to rebuff the academic approach while at the same time steeping his poetry in the flow of “ordinary” experience, the banality of throwaway perception and being—lowering the teabag into a mug, or standing around in a seersucker suit. Treated in this way it ceases to be banal. The drowned Lycidas, or Phlebas the Phoenician sailor, appear in pictures or used-car lots and are also ingested in the poem’s grainy but exotic texture. If we have it, we have a taste for these things, and a taste for his poetry, as for all poetry, is something Ashbery rather magnificently takes for granted. It can seem like something halfway between reflective introspection and watching television.
Voices of autumn in full, heavy summer;
algae spangling a pool. A lot remains to be done, doesn’t it?
I haven’t even begun to turn myself inside-out yet, and that
has to precede even an informal beginning. Try making up those childish itineraries we were once
so apt at, and you’ll see. Even my diary has become an omen to me,
and I know how I’ll have to go on writing it; it would be disap- pointed
otherwise. And those days we have to get through! Afternoons at the store,
and when bluish evening, the color of television
in a window high above the street, comes on, who has the strength to
judge it all…
Sex makes charmingly evasive swirls and eddies in the movement, almost as a part of its humor, or of Auden’s “secret clearings where the shy humiliations / Gambol on sunny afternoons.” The poem can be very funny about the days (strangely enough its own days, for “we all live in the past now”) when it seemed important to understand, to get things right, and (to quote Auden again) “make action urgent and its purpose clear.”
these were the things
they were saying then in the theater or writing about in novels so that
people would understand and thereby save themselves a lot of trouble
and floundering. In the unprinci- pled mire we walk about in today, nobody bothers even
to warn you about the perils of white slavery (to cite an extreme example), but then again
nobody is forcing you to save yourself either.
Sex should be a way of not specifying; and that is what it becomes in the poem, where it takes its proper place in the provinces of daydream. At the same time the humor of Flow Chart (“stockings are of secondary importance”) consists in the poem’s full awareness that it is part of a literary consciousness in which when “we are surprised yet not too surprised / By every new, dimpled vista,” we automatically feel—involuntarily dialing Wordsworth—”I knew then that nature was my friend.” Sex is a part, no doubt the most important part, of a literary consciousness; and there is charm in the fact that the word “dimpled” could refer to a momentary impression of either sex as well as to the fact that even “nature” itself can seem kind at times, when our thoughts are all moving agreeably and in the right direction, as they do in Flow Chart. The poem is happy because it charts the harmonious processing of daydream, as if “nature” had become (as no doubt it has) a process in which mind and matter cooperate in a kind of complex industrial miracle.
There is indeed a mellowness in Flow Chart, as in Keats’s “Ode to Autumn,” which has replaced the often disturbing unease and transparency of Shadow Train and April Galleons, in which poems like “Forgotten Sex” (“They tore down the old movie palaces…”) enact the fragility and fright of “transparent bricks / in particular dreams,” and the moment when consciousness yields to the present—”As it comes time to stand up like a sheet of metal / in the blast of sunrise.” Flow Chart locates itself safely in the past, the haunt of consciousness, where it seems more normal to wonder about white slavery than about AIDS.
The game, or trick, in Flow Chart connects with its curious air of patrician safety and pleasantness, as if the author were absolutely sure of himself, and displaying the villanelles and triple sestinas which are part of his ornamentation in a spirit of pure courtesy, like Browning’s duke showing off his wondrous possessions. After the calculated Angst and self-conscious uncertainty thought proper in most contemporary poetry Ashbery’s frank and calm display comes as a great relief, as well as justifying itself as a sign of mastery. As his art criticism, Reported Sightings, shows, as well as his most famous poem, Reflections in a Convex Mirror, Ashbery has, as it were, looked into the existential question and the identity problem—as these affect art—and has disposed of them in a manner that befits this ringmaster of the romantic effect. Those once-fashionable ideas from Marx or Heidegger are used to build a new style of Victoriana, in which tableaux—like a girl’s mind as she is being proposed to in a back of a car (“It was so good—and underneath I was saying, all men are rogues, but I guess I like them”) climb up for a few well-put-together sentences, and are dismantled. This is Ashbery’s highly effective version of a romantic paradox which only the best poets of the genre can pull off. When Housman ends a poem “In all the endless road you tread / There’s nothing but the night,” or Auden promises that “In headaches and in worry / Slowly life leaks away,” the reader feels positively bucked up, is given a new shot of joie de vivre; and the same thing happens to the punctilio with which Ashbery’s lines celebrate the baroque reign of insufficiency and contingency.
It seems that Ashbery was an old- fashioned child, brought up on a farm and befriended, as if in an early Henry James story, by an elderly grandfather and a rich neighbor. He went to Deerfield Academy and thence to Harvard, where he was the contemporary of poets and writers like Robert Creeley and Robert Bly, Donald Hall and John Hawkes. For the New York school with whom he then became identified poetry could be a close relative of painting and music, although the affinity of Ashbery’s poetry with these other arts may now seem more notional and cosmetic than deeply integrated. But the Ivory Tower is one aspect of romanticism that means nothing to him. John Cage taught him that “whatever interruption happens is part of the piece of music.” Answering the phone and talking to students are as much at home in the consciousness of his poetry as doing the chores in the office when he worked on ArtNews. He now teaches part-time at Bard College and lives much of the time near the Hudson in a house furnished to resemble his grandfather’s.*
Reviewing Ashbery’s Selected Poems in The New York Times the English poet James Fenton said, “There were times…when I actually thought I was going to burst into tears of boredom,” and wrote of “this excursus into the meaning of meaningless….” Significant perhaps, all the same, that Fenton made such boredom sound emotional and dynamic. It is part of the Ashbery paradox that boredom is as compelling as daydream, the routine coming and going of consciousness as masterful as the deeds of an old-time extrovert film hero. The Bloomsbury critic Desmond Macarthy, whose talk was the most fabled of his time, was once captured unbeknown to him by an early recording machine as he sat at the dinner table. Results were null: nothing seemed to make sense at all. And yet the talk had been fabulous. Ashbery’s speech seems deliberately to play with and to court such an outcome: and to gain authority from making the challenge, by becoming the natural noise of the contingent present. Transformed this way we feel we too can speak it by a new style of romantic alchemy.
See Dinitia Smith, "Poem Alone," New York magazine, May 20, 1991.↩
See Dinitia Smith, "Poem Alone," New York magazine, May 20, 1991.↩