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:
As inevitable as a barking dog, second-hand music
drifts down five flights of stairs and out into the street,
adjusting seams, checking makeup in pocket mirror.
Inside the camera obscura, jovial as ever,
dentists make all the money. I didn’t know that then.
Children came out to tell me, in measured tones,
how cheap the seaside is, how the salt air reddens cheeks.
Violently dented by storms, the new silhouettes
last only a few washings.
Put your glasses on and read the label. Hold that bat.
He’d sooner break rank than wind.
He’s bought himself a shirt the color of Sam Rayburn Lake,
muddled ocher by stumps and land practices. Picnicking prisoners
never fail to enjoy the musk that drifts off it
in ever-thickening waves,
triggering bloody nostalgia
for a hypotenuse that never was.
The title is suggestive, but doesn’t tell me anything specific. I find myself on the stairs of an apartment building with music from a radio or a record player floating down five flights like a woman all dressed up to go on a hot date. Nice image, I think. Next come the cheerful, money-grabbing dentists and the logic of the image eludes me. What is it about a dentist’s office that is like that forerunner of the photographic camera with its tiny opening through which the light passes? I’m making the assumption that the dentists are in the same building, because like most readers I take everything I’m told in a poem literally first. In other words, I need a firm foothold and Ashbery won’t let me have one. He’s quick on his feet. All points of view are temporary to him. He seems to be everywhere and nowhere in his poems. Scenes, tenses, pronouns shift without the slightest warning. I suppose, instead of worrying where I am, I ought to have followed that young woman out into the street. If there are kids offering travel tips on the sidewalk, so be it.
The same goes for the new silhouettes (new identities?) that come with laundry labels and last only a few washings. Have the children been playing stickball on the street? This fellow who wears a shirt the color of a lake in Texas named after the distinguished speaker of the House of Representatives, is he asking me to join the game? At this point, the reader either gives up on the poem or figures, what the hell, let’s go for a ride with it. A chain gang of prisoners straight out of a 1930s movie have just sat down for a picnic lunch at the lakeside, making someone nostalgic for the days when tough guys thought they knew all the angles, even the ones that were never there.
Ashbery can rarely write down anything without being reminded of something else. Perhaps “write” is not the correct name for how he composes. It’s hard to imagine him writing the first stanza of this poem and then proceeding to the next one and the next one by a series of associations. These unexpected and mystifying shifts and gaps are to be found everywhere in his poetry, but how are they actually accomplished? Are they a meticulous transcript of his mind’s ongoing activity? To me, the poems frequently feel as if they were the products of chance operations. Words and phrases found anywhere are moved around until they begin to cohere. I can imagine him getting up in the middle of a poem, reaching for any book on his shelf, opening it anywhere, or picking up the newspaper from the floor and incorporating the newly found language. He has a knack for making these fragments flow together as if they were a part of someone’s interior conversation. Even more amazingly, he manages in poem after poem to make that voice intimate and distinctive.
Whatever an Ashbery poem eventually turns out to be about is not an idea he started with but something he stumbled upon as he shuffled phrases and images like a pack of cards. It’s precisely because he has nothing to say initially that he is able to say something new. Poets, who think they have new things to say, run out of ideas quickly and are condemned to say the same thing over and over again in their poems. This may not make very much sense, but that’s how it works in practice.
There’s something else too. Most poets trim their experiences down to their manageable parts. If they are writing about what happened in the woods one snowy night, they are not likely to include stray thoughts they are having at that moment about taking a pair of pants to the cleaners. Ashbery does. He includes such extraneous material, no matter how irrelevant it seems to be. It is his refusal to make a choice between what is “serious” and what is “trivial” that drives his detractors batty. They want poems to tidy up experience, while he keeps insisting that messiness is part of the picture. What it comes down to is a quarrel about truth and beauty. Can a poem bear the mention of barbecued pork ribs dripping with grease and still be a lyric poem? If one believes that randomness and nonsense are an integral part of the human experience, as all comic writers always have, then those for whom poetry is synonymous with delicacy of feelings and verbal decorum will go away unhappy and even angry.
Ashbery’s comic outlook goes against the grain of much of our poetry. “We live in an old soup of the tragi-comic,” he says in a poem in the new book. By taking lightly the whole idea of one meaning, he blasphemes against our transcendentalist tradition, which all but obligates the American poet to end each poem with a wholesome insight, if not a cosmic vision. “Please don’t tell me if it all adds up in the end./I’m sick of that one,” he says. Most of the time he resists the temptation, although he is more than capable of composing a poem of ideas with an intricate argument and an unambiguous conclusion. Nevertheless, Ashbery is rightly wary of the way poets, as a matter of habit, contrive to sum it all up for the reader. What’s the point in reading a poem, many will say, if there’s no point to it? For the same reason, I would answer, it’s pleasant and even poetic to take a walk in a strange city with no destination in mind and end up getting lost.
When Whitman claimed that he contained multitudes, he was not just bragging. To a greater or lesser extent, all Americans do. There’s no poet since Whitman who has had a larger vocabulary than Ashbery. Like Marcel Duchamp with his ready-mades, he is confident that poetry can be made of any verbal material, no matter how lowly it may be. Where he differs from the author of “Song of Myself” is that he is not interested in cataloging American reality, but in taking inventory of its various lingoes. A poem for Ashbery is a stage in a comedy club. Like a good impersonator, he’s able to assume many different voices and act out the roles that go with them. There’s no inflated ego in Ashbery, no belief in the firmness of the individual self. In his poems, unknown speakers address other unknown speakers or they talk to themselves as we eavesdrop. He told an interviewer in l978, the year his Three Plays was published: “Perhaps I am able to write more easily when I imagine what another person might be thinking or saying. I think in my poetry one can become aware of a number of different voices carrying on a dialogue or conversation in the poem even though it’s not indicated, of course as it is in a play.”2
Ashbery’s new book of poems is one of his better ones. Once again, the many kinds of language in use today are on display: “A talent for self-realization/will get you only as far as the vacant lot/next to the lumber yard” is how a poem called “Life is a Dream” begins. Another poem in Your Name Here conflates the histories of Admiral George Dewey, philosopher John Dewey, and Melvil Dewey, the educator and innovator in library science:
MEMORIES OF IMPERIALISM
Dewey took Manila
and soon after invented the decimal system
that keeps libraries from collapsing even unto this day.
A lot of mothers immediatelystarted naming their male offspring
“Dewey,”which made him queasy. He was already having second thoughts about
imperialism.In his dreams he saw library books with milky numbers
on their spines floating in Manila Bay.
Soon even words like “vanilla” or “mantilla” would cause him to
vomit.The sight of a manila envelope precipitated him
into his study, where all day, with the blinds drawn,
he would press fingers against temples, muttering “What have I
done?”all the while. Then, gradually, he began feeling a bit better.
The world hadn’t ended. He’d go for walks in his old neighborhood,
marveling at the changes there, or at the lack of them. “If one is
to go down in history, it is better to do so for two things
rather than one,” he would stammer, none too meaningfully.
One day his wife took him aside
in her boudoir, pulling the black lace mantilla from her head
and across her bare breasts until his head was entangled in it.
“Honey, what am I supposed to say?” “Say nothing, you big boob.
Just be glad you got away with it and are famous.” “Speaking of
boobs…” “Now you’re getting the idea. Go file those books
on those shelves over there. Come back only when you’re finished.”
To this day schoolchildren wonder about his latter career
as a happy pedant, always nice with children, thoughtful
toward their parents. He wore a gray ceramic suit
walking his dog, a “bouledogue,” he would point out.
People would peer at him from behind shutters, watchfully,
hoping no new calamities would break out, or indeed
that nothing more would happen, ever, that history had ended.
Yet it hadn’t, as the admiral himself
would have been the first to acknowledge.
In Ashbery’s poem-theater lately the repertoire consists mostly of tragic farces. “It seems we were so happy once, just for a minute,” he says in one poem. “The failure to see God is not a proble/God has a problem with,” is how another one begins. Ashbery is an inveterate skeptic who, like Stevens and Frost, admits only temporary stays against confusion. For him each moment of our lives, each thing we say, is equally true and false. It is true, because at the very moment we are saying it that is the only reality, and it is false because in the next moment another reality will replace it. Despite the insouciant tone of his poetry, Ashbery doesn’t take in stride the philosophical muddle we find ourselves in. He knows that there’s a tragic side to this farce we all play so well and perhaps he is never more explicit about that than in the new book. An air of deep melancholy pervades a number of the poems so that the love poems often read like elegies. He cites with approval in Other Traditions a definition of poetry from one of David Schubert’s poems:
Speaking of what cannot be said
To the person I want to say it.
Of course. The impossibility of ever adequately describing the feel of time passing, the light falling in a certain way, all the fleeting and ineffable moments that make up an individual life, are the reasons lyric poetry has been written for over two thousand years. Ashbery, our poet with the finest ear for language, speaks of what eludes words, what lies outside them and stubbornly continues being something else:
OF THE LIGHT
That watery light, so undervalued
except when evaluated, which never happens
much, perhaps even not at all—I intend to conserve it
somehow, in a book, in a dish, even at night,
like an insect in a light bulb.
Yes, day may just be breaking. The importance isn’t there
but in beautiful flights of the trees
accepting their own flaccid destiny,
or the tightrope of seasons.
We get scared when we look at them up close
but the king doesn’t mind. He has the tides to worry about,
and how fitting is the new mood of contentment
and how long it will wear thin.
I looked forward to seeing you so much
I have dragged the king from his lair: There,
take that, you old wizard. Wizard enough, he replies,
but this isn’t going to save us from the light
of breakfast, or mend the hole in your stocking.
“Now wait”—and yet another day has consumed itself,
brisk with passion and grief, crisp as an illustration in a magazine
from the thirties, where we and this light were all that mattered.
“Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibility that they are founded on nothing,” Ashbery has written.3 Reading his new book of lectures and collection of poems, we can only be grateful that he has never fooled himself for a minute into thinking that he knows now how it’s done and that there’s no longer any room or need for surprises.