Depending on what critic one happens to read, John Ashbery is either our finest, most innovative poet of the last thirty years or he is simply just another shameless purveyor of incomprehensible, self-indulgent nonsense. There’s no doubt that he is as influential today as Eliot or Lowell were in their day. In my own case, reading him over these many years, I must have learned a thing or two along the way.
Ashbery, as with any prolific poet, is occasionally bad, often exasperating, and almost always interesting. He has great poetic skills and is capable of writing a truly magnificent poem. In his twenty books of poetry, there is a body of work as original and beautiful as anyone has written in the last fifty years. Grouped with the so-called New York School of poets, who with several other poetic movements in the 1950s saw themselves as subverting the conventions of the times, he has long since transcended any such label. In fact, it seems to me, the heart of Ashbery’s aesthetic project is a lifelong effort to elude categories. Both the critics who conscript him as a postmodernist and claim they understand his every verbal conjuring act as well as the ones who find his poems hopelessly obscure and unreadable are wide off the mark. His poetry is far too varied and intellectually complex to permit itself to be pigeonholed. Readers of diverse tastes easily make anthologies of their Ashbery favorites, rarely duplicating a poem.
When asked about their poetic influences, poets are rarely forthright. They beat around the bush not because they’re in the throes of some version of Harold Bloom’s Oedipal struggle with a poetic ancestor which they desperately wish to conceal, but because they truly do not know for sure. In an age when American poets are read in Siberia and French poets in Kansas, a poetic style is a concoction of many recipes from many different cuisines, so that even the most experienced epicure of verse is often hard put to identify all the ingredients that went into it. On the opening page of Other Traditions, a collection of his Norton Lectures at Harvard, pondering why he was invited to give these talks, Ashbery speculates that the reason may be that since he is known as a writer of hermetic poetry, they most likely expect him to “spill the beans” in the course of the lectures and reveal how he does it.
Of course, a poet as hospitable as he is to a variety of poetic strategies, someone who can easily move within a single poem from high seriousness to downright silliness, echoing in the process several earlier styles of poetry and still sounding like himself, is extraordinarily difficult to pin down. He readily admits the importance of Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Gertrude Stein, Elizabeth Bishop, and more surprisingly William Carlos Williams, Boris Pasternak, and Osip Mandelstam. In addition to these, he speaks in the lectures about a smaller group of poets whom he reads to get a jump-start when his batteries have run down and he needs to be reminded again what poetry is. They are all minor figures and include known names like John Clare, Laura Riding, and the French poet-novelist Raymond Roussel, little-known ones like Thomas Lovell Beddoes and John Wheelwright, and a complete unknown, David Schubert. 1 Ashbery explains:
As I look back on the writers I have learned from, it seems that the majority, for reasons I am not quite sure of, are what the world calls minor ones. Is it inherent sympathy for the underdog, which one so often feels oneself to be when one embarks on the risky business of writing? Is it desire for one-upmanship, the urge to parade one’s esoteric discoveries before others? Or is there something inherently stimulating in the poetry called “minor,” something it can do for us when major poetry can merely wring its hands? And what exactly is minor poetry?
No matter how its secondary status is defined, whether it is due to bad luck on the poet’s part or simply a lack of merit, the strength of minor poetry, Ashbery would say, lies precisely in its imperfection. The Norton Lectures attempt to solve that puzzle, namely, the degree to which originality is the product of a peculiar kind of inability. These poets, one thinks, are like the so-called primitive painters whose vision charms us despite their lack of ability—except not really. The poets Ashbery discusses had plenty of poetic skill, so the answer must lie somewhere else. It may be that for various reasons they were incapable of obeying what were regarded as good literary manners in their day. Clare, for instance, rankled his would-be editors with radical sentiments about the plight of the rural poor and his anticlericalism. Beddoes hoped to discover the exact location of the soul through anatomical research. Wheelwright wrote by first gazing at the ocean for several days, until phrases formed themselves in his mind and he was compelled to write them down.
Our literature is full of misfits, so it is only natural that an American poet would seek them out. It takes a certain type of reader, however, to recognize them and appreciate them, a reader with a knowledge of modern poetry’s experimental tradition, where poems that consist of nothing but images and fragments are common, as with Clare’s “The Elm and the Ashes”:
The elm tree’s heavy foliage meets the eye
Propt in dark masses on the evening sky.
The lighter ash but half obstructs the view,
Leaving grey openings where the light looks through.
Or this from Beddoes:
Like the red outline of beginning Adam.
Other Traditions is an entertaining and shrewd little book. To begin with, the life stories of the six poets he discusses are all amazing. Ashbery is an accomplished raconteur and the lectures are full of delightful anecdotes. We learn, for instance, that Raymond Roussel wrote in the morning and then alone sat down to a meal, which consisted of breakfast, lunch, and dinner and which lasted from early to late afternoon and often consisted of twenty-seven courses. His favorite dish, by the way, was chocolate soup. The other delectations of the book are the remarkable poems and fragments he has rescued from oblivion. There’s the astonishing David Schubert, whom he says he values more than Pound or Eliot, and the equally gifted John Wheelwright, who wrote this moving poem, which I feel I must quote in full:
For Horace Gregory
After rain, through afterglow, the unfolding fan
of railway landscape sidled onthe pivot
of a larger arc into the green of evening;
I remembered that noon I saw a gradual bud
still white; though dead in its warm bloom;
always the enemy is the foe at home.
And I wondered what surgery could recover
our lost, long stride of indolence and leisure
which is labor in reverse; what physic recall the smile
not of lips, but of eyes as of the sea bemused.
We, when we disperse from common sleep to several
tasks, we gather to despair; we, who assembled
once for hopes from common toil to dreams
or sickish and hurting or triumphal rapture;
always our enemy is our foe at home.
We, deafened with far scattered city rattles
to the hubbub of forest birds (never having
“had time” to grieve or to hear through vivid sleep
the sea knock on its cracked and hollow stones)
so that the stars, almost, and birds comply,
and the garden-wet; the trees retire; We are
a scared patrol, fearing the guns behind;
always the enemy is the foe at home.
What wonder that we fear our own eyes’ look
and fidget to be at home alone, and pitifully
put of age by some change in brushing the hair
and stumble to our ends like smothered runners at their tape;
We follow our shreds of fame into an ambush.
Then (as while the stars herd to the great trough
the blind, in the always-only-outward of their dismantled
archways, awake at the smell of warmed stone
or the sound of reeds, lifting from the dim
into the segment of green dawn) always
our enemy is our foe at home, more
certainly than through spoken words or from grief-
twisted writing on paper, unblotted by tears
the thought came:
There is no physic
for the world’s ill, nor surgery; it must
(hot smell of tar on wet salt air)
burn in fever forever, an incense pierced
with arrows, whose name is Love and another name
Rebellion (the twinge, the gulf, split seconds,
the very raindrops, render, and instancy
All Poetry to this not-to-be-looked-upon sun
of Passion is the moon’s cupped light; all
Politics to this moon, a moon’s reflected
cupped light, like the moon of Rome, after
the deep well of Grecian light sank low;
always the enemy is the foe at home.
But these three are friends whose arms twine
without words; as, in still air,
the great grove leans to wind, past and to come.
There’s nothing comparable in American poetry—and that’s the point Ashbery is making in his lectures. Minor poets come to the feast of the muses, as Edmund Gosse said of Thomas Lovell Beddoes, “bearing little except one small savory dish, some cold preparation, we may say, of olives and anchovies, the strangeness of which has to make up for its lack of importance.” Nonetheless, there are more than hors d’oeuvres in these talks. Personally, I’d make Wheelwright’s poem one of the entrees at a banquet to which the most fastidious writers were invited.
The lectures also provide abundant hints about Ashbery’s own method. As he readily admits, poets when writing about other poets frequently write about themselves. He also quotes John Barth to the effect that writers really don’t know why they do what they do, and when they try to explain it, they talk rubbish. This may be true in a lot of cases, but it does not apply to Ashbery. Anyone who is familiar with his writings on art knows what a keen critical mind he has. Some suggestive bits from Other Traditions provide, along with many other similar ones in the book, an excellent description of what reading an Ashbery poem feels like:
He begins anywhere and stops anywhere.
…Yet their shifts of tone can be…bewildering.
Unlike Wordsworth’s exalted rambles in “The Prelude,” there is no indication that all this is leading up to something, that the result will be an enriching vision, a placing of man in harmonious relation to his God-created surroundings.
She made her poetry a record of her mind becoming aware of itself.
…What we are left with is a bouquet of many layered, splintered meanings, to be clasped but never fully understood.
Here is a poem from Your Name Here, Ashbery’s new collection, that has some of the characteristics listed above: