John Ashbery’s new volume, A Worldly Country, is another installment of the strange diaries regularly appearing from the poet over the last fifty years. (Ashbery will be eighty next July, and has had the good luck to retain the capacity to write his decades into poetry.) I think of Ashbery’s shorter poems as “diaries” because so many of them have the dailiness, the occasional inconsequentiality, the fragmentary quality, the confiding candor, and the obliquity we associate with the diary form. The diarist, careless of communication (since he already has all the information necessary for the decoding of his own private pages), may remain indifferent to explicitness, to “message,” to “statement,” to “meaning.” The diary has, at its off-the-cuff best, a kind of intriguing charm: its vicissitudes (digressions, interruptions, unexplained allusions) keep later annotators busy; the elliptical text can end up occupying less space than its commentaries.
Much as the historian must explore, by research, the brief entries of a diary (think of Laurel Ulrich’s expansion into a chronicle of the diary of a New England midwife), so the reader must intuit by association the psychic history implicit in Ashbery’s metaphors. And in spite of our attempts, much in Ashbery remains uncertain. I was once (not recognizing an allusion to the Finnish epic the Kalevala) dead wrong in these pages myself, in thinking that an Ashbery poem was about awaiting Death. Ashbery told me, with bemused sympathy for my misapprehension, that it was really about awaiting love. I suppose one could still say it was about awaiting, and that that was what mattered.
Not all of Ashbery’s poems are diary-like: his long poems (at least those that are extended autobiographies in abstract form) usually have an intermittent purposeful coherence, while the diary-lyrics allow a more whimsical, wayward, teasing progression that has been, to his readers, by turns annoying, provocative, and enchanting. Over the years, Ashbery has been claimed by many special-interest groups: the Francophiles (citing his formative years in Paris as a young man); the avant-garde (pointing to such experiments of his as the “cut-up” poem and the double-column poem); artists (finding in his work a corollary to abstract painting); and the young (delighting in his fondness for movies, cartoons, pop culture, and the transient lingo of the day). Followers of his career can admire his searching range of observation and his murmuring continuity with the entire tradition of Western poetry, from doggerel to divine poems, not to speak of his fondness for haiku. Ashbery himself is at pains to declare that he writes for everybody:
“Bound and determined” one writes a letter
to the street, in demotic, hoping a friend
will find, keep it, and analyze it.
The letter is not always found; or if found, not kept; or if kept, not analyzed; and the poet reproaches himself for the failure to reach others, which “leav[es] you brackish, untried.” And so he compulsively starts up again, hoping for a more amiable effect, “peaceful, this …