The Man With Night Sweats
Wallace Stevens wrote of the need to “confect / the final elegance.” The phrase seems unusually appropriate for the work of John Ashbery and Thom Gunn, but it also shifts and turns as we apply it to them. These poets were elegant from the very beginning of their careers, their elegance never anything but “final.” In another sense, it is not final even now, some dozen volumes of verses since they started—to be precise, fifteen for Ashbery, ten for Gunn. Neither the books nor the poems are shut off from the raggedness of experience, their elegance has room for the provisional, the derelict, the unmanageable: for “trash and understanding,” as Ashbery put it in Flow Chart (1991).
“Confect” too has interesting echoes here: stripped of any negative connotation, as indeed it is in Stevens, it nevertheless recalls the act of making a poem, of finding the ingredients and putting them together. Ashbery and Gunn leave us in no doubt that a poem is a fiction, the product of skilled labor; a piece of the world shaped and angled into words on a piece of paper. “Still in the published city” are Flow Chart’s first words, and in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), Ashbery evokes the temptation “not to include this page / In the fragment of our lives….” In Passages of Joy (1982), Gunn evokes “the excellent room / where I slept, ate, read, and wrote….”
The poets are otherwise not much alike, except in their distinction and age (Ashbery, born 1927; Gunn, born 1929). They share a language and, in an intricate sense, a history; a language which is a history. And both have sought, in different ways, to bring poetry to bear on difficult and elusive contemporary conditions: loss, displacement, affection, loyalty, bewilderment, abrupt and brutal death. Ashbery favors free verse, flowing lines, clear syntax, parody, wordplay, occasional prose poems, an irony that curls around everything like a question mark. Gunn prefers rhyme, traditional meters, austere beauties, pathos, the play of modern topics against ancient forms. One can imagine them in dialogue, though: the Francophile American, for whom England is a whimsical novel, littered about his poems like a paper chase, while America is a mystery, a letter that never arrives; the expatriate Englishman, for whom America is a place of risk and style, damage and death, for whom England seems more and more to be only a cramped and ancient cage.
There is a whole history of poetry in English to be heard in Ashbery’s work. It is a haunted house, “using what Wyatt and Surrey left around,” as he puts it with deceptive American nonchalance. We can hear whispers and parodies of Shakespeare, Whitman, Gray’s “Elegy,” The Waste Land, Stevens, hints of Auden, dozens of other poets. As in: “The snakes and ladders / of outrageous fortune” or “more shitted against than shitting,” or “I could be wrong, I have been in the past, and about more things / than you, Horatio.” There is: “I hear …