John Ashbery: ‘Look, Gesture, Hearsay’

How much survives? How much of any one of us survives?” John Ashbery asks in his great poem of 1966, “The Skaters.”

The articles we’d collect—stamps of the colonies
With greasy cancellation marks, mauve, magenta and chocolate,
Or funny-looking dogs we’d see in the street, or bright remarks.
One collects bullets. An Indianapolis, Indiana man collects slingshots of all epochs, and so on.

Routinely we refer to a “collection” of poems, without considering the poignancy of what a collector does and what a collection is. Ashbery, himself a collector of art, records, books, and objects, is a collector within his poems, assembling curiosities and profundities, jokes, confessions, tricks, inventories of objects, the names of small-time actors, the names of films, the names of flowers, and so on. He shares Wallace Stevens’s dream of “A Completely New Set of Objects.” Ashbery is spiritual cousin to Joseph Cornell, the great collector of clay pipes, pill boxes, and girls’ dolls, and to the outsider artist Henry Darger, whose homemade cosmology, brilliantly embellished in watercolor and collage, influenced Ashbery’s 1999 book Girls on the Run. Ashbery’s poetry, like Darger’s art, is an entire world, its terms minutely and eccentrically developed; like Cornell’s boxes and collages, his poems are part storage, part wonder. With Mark Ford’s monumental John Ashbery: Collected Poems, 1956–1987 (and with a second volume soon to follow), now the collector is collected.

Collecting is a private act, driven by an internal logic, governed by invented rules. But a collection is the public presentation of a person’s privacy, his vision of his privacy. Ashbery’s poems have always kept their secrets, sometimes defiantly so, even as he and his poems have become better and better known. In them, “Business is carried on by look, gesture,/Hearsay.” Readers who like him feel included in his secrets; readers who don’t often really don’t, with the bitterness of the spurned.

No poet of our time has been more influential, and yet with this poet a counter-anthology of worst-loved poems could be printed. Whole Ashbery poems—his collage poem “Europe,” for example—became famous for being unreadable, or, worse, hostile to readers, or, worst of all, a big hoax. Ashbery occasionally addressed in his poems the disgust some people experience while reading him, as when he titles a poem “Not Him Again” or “Thank You for Not Cooperating,” or, in “Grand Galop,” assembles the components of his poem from an unappetizing school lunch menu:

And today is Monday. Today’s lunch is: Spanish omelet, lettuce and tomato salad,
Jello, milk and cookies. Tomorrow’s: sloppy joe on bun,
Scalloped corn, stewed tomatoes, rice pudding and milk.

Sound good? Of course not, which is why, a few lines later, Ashbery records the loud aftermath of eating so much garbage: “Puaagh. Vomit. Puaaaaagh. More vomit.” The anticipated response to his poems, whether praise or vomit, is often incorporated by Ashbery into the poems themselves. Like Walt …

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