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 …