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John Ashbery: ‘Look, Gesture, Hearsay’

1.

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 Whitman and like T.S. Eliot in the Four Quartets, Ashbery is sublimely aware, in his work, of how his reader is faring.

Long into the period of his celebrity, Ashbery’s has remained a style worked out in obscurity, a homemade contrivance for passing the hours. Like 300 Things a Bright Boy Can Do (the Edwardian handbook for bored boys that influenced “The Skaters”), his poems are little exercises for the imagination, or big exercises with little ones lodged, like bright pennies, inside. “The way time feels as it passes” is Ashbery’s true subject, as he has allowed; but that feeling varies from person to person, from moment to moment. His concentric time-frames, from the time the poem takes to get from start to finish, to the times of day that pass as he composes, to the longer spans of time in a person’s life and a culture’s life—these are all at work all the time in Ashbery’s poems, and Ashbery often jumps, hopscotch-style, between them. But the backdrop is always those slow bleak days Ashbery spent as a child in Sodus, New York, on his father’s fruit farm. Time slogs along in the snowbelt, just as, on days intended for poetry, time comes to seem infinite.

The only way to make time pass any faster is actually to write the poems you intended to write, which Ashbery has done with unprecedented genius and unprecedented frequency. The accumulation of poems over time measures the passing of time, like the accumulation of snow during a storm (Ashbery calls “The Skaters” a “poem in the form of falling snow”). “The Skaters” finds Ashbery driven by contesting impulses, to represent “the importance of the individual flake” and “the whole impression of the storm.” Poetry, like snowfall, accumulates at variable rates and uncertain intervals. “Startled by a snowfall,” Ashbery realizes, at the end of “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” that “it will be hard…to get to sleep tonight, at least until late.” Ashbery’s poems constantly match their own “moping and thrashing through time” against time’s conventional measures: the day passing into darkness, the passing of the seasons, the wearing down of the body, the blurring of memory. The total design is dizzying, elaborately worked up, embellished beyond anybody’s dream of detail, but, as in Proust, getting lost is part of the point.

Losing, failing, falling behind, and straying—these are the states of mind that interest Ashbery the most. Like Whitman, Ashbery cannot bear the pathos of his readers’ failing to find him (“You will hardly know who I am or what I mean/But I shall be good health to you nevertheless”—Whitman, “Song of Myself”). The odd empathy that saturates these poems arises from Ashbery’s total identification with readers and acts of reading, his equal distribution of sentience between author and reader. Because he finds himself radically inscrutable, Ashbery is, more thoroughly than any other poet of our era, a reader of his own poems, a decipherer, often (like his readers) suspended in a state of anxious partial knowledge.

In “Worsening Situation” the tables turn, as a mysterious message, urgent yet vague, interrupts the mysterious poem that is unfolding:

One day a man called while I was out
And left this message: “You got the whole thing wrong
From start to finish. Luckily, there’s still time
To correct the situation, but you must act fast.
See me at your earliest convenience. And please
Tell no one of this. Much besides your life depends on it.”

The “situation” we all got wrong was the poem itself, “Worsening Situation,” which, since the poem is still ongoing, we have “time to correct.” Of course we can’t correct the situation, beholden as we are to a speaker who greets this warning with a shrug: “I thought nothing of it at the time.” The poem ends by including us in an absurd deception, as our mercurial speaker confides that his wife thinks he is “in Oslo—Oslo, France, that is.”

Ashbery’s peculiarly confiding tone, his odd, off-the-rack intimacy, make him the nearest of all difficult poets. When Ashbery writes of the “private life/shut up behind doors, which is nobody’s business,” we must not confuse this anti-model of suburban privacy for Ashbery’s own position. He is sometimes mistaken for a poet of unintelligible private logic, fun to overhear, perhaps, better at being nonsensical than the next guy, but not a poet for common distribution.

In fact his intensely wrought and sometimes fiercely patrolled privacy yields, often, to stunning candor, as his poems shuttle sublimely between states of disorientation and states of clarity, here encoding, there deciphering. “I know that I braid too much of my own/Snapped-off perceptions of things as they come to me,” he writes in “The One Thing That Can Save America,” a clear statement about the absence of clear statements in his work. Just when you’ve found terra firma, chaos takes over. Ashbery is in fact a great parodist of clear-eyed maxims and certainties, as in his short lyric “Introduction”:

To be a writer and write things
You must have experiences you can write about.
Just living won’t do. I have a theory
About masterpieces, how to make them
At very little expense, and they’re every
Bit as good as the others.

The “theory,” when it arrives, is of course indecipherable, leaving readers feeling swindled by Ashbery’s promise of a “game with no losers and only one/Winner—you.” But in Ashbery’s game of intimate collaboration, where readers’ own plights are themselves included in his poems, where the chief decipherer may well be as baffled as the rest of us, it is the case that “you” in all its forms is the winner, and every reader who allows herself to feel addressed by that you is uncannily singled out (sole winner) while still incorporated into the body of other readers reading Ashbery (there are no losers).

2.

Readers of this Collected Poems will be pleased to see Ashbery’s collaboration with the New York School artist Joe Brainard, The Vermont Notebook, a Whitmanian inventory of bus-stop and byway America accompanied by Brainard’s lonely illustrations. Ashbery wrote his part of the book on a bus trip. A Nest of Ninnies, Ashbery’s collaborative novel with James Schuyler, was written on train and car trips on Long Island.^* These collaborative inventories of American life remind us of how richly American this poet is, how total his survey of the landscape and weather of America these last fifty years.

Ashbery is the opposite of a regionalist. By virtue of growing up in a place that might have been anywhere, that felt like nowhere, his America is a set of ideas (or as he writes in another context, “ideas about thoughts”). His New York is an abstracted nowhere, merely “a logarithm/Of other cities”: how different indeed from the minutely enumerated city of his friends Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler. But over and over again the America of the WPA guidebooks, travel shorts, radio shows, westerns, encyclopedia entries—the abstract, out-of-date, iconic America that eventually drifts to outposts like Sodus, New York—appears in Ashbery’s poems. Nostalgia plays a part in this, and anyone reading “Mixed Feelings” or “Qualm” (“Warren G. Harding invented the word ‘normalcy’”) or countless other poems about the rural American past will feel Ashbery testing discredited modes like nostalgia and sentimentality, the way he tests every tone and register for power.

Ashbery’s collection of American souvenirs forms, importantly, a zone of consciousness, “buses bound for Connecticut, and tree business, and all that we think about when we stop thinking” (that, I take it, is Christmas in New York) or “Orchards flung out on the land,/Urban forests, rustic plantations, knee-high hills.” “These are connected to my version of America,” he writes, “but the juice is elsewhere.” The poem (“The One Thing That Can Save America”) turns out to mean “juice” in the sense of a beverage one drinks at breakfast:

This morning as I walked out of your room
After breakfast crosshatched with
Backward and forward glances, backward into light,
Forward into unfamiliar light,
Was it our doing, and was it
The material, the lumber of life, or of lives
We were measuring, counting?

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