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John Ashbery: ‘Look, Gesture, Hearsay’

This is a classic poem about the parting of lovers. The self pulsating with hair-trigger judgments, impressions, and impressions of impressions, erotically “crosshatched” by forward and backward glances: what can any of that have to do with “America”? And yet these overlapping zones give the moment its weird density, the orchards providing the “lumber” of metaphorical thought, the “material” of emotion.

What makes Ashbery surprisingly American is his refusal to rule out of private consciousness those consigned, American elements that combine and recombine in the mind. There is a theory of language behind this, but it’s not Ashbery’s theory. Ashbery simply finds it odd that consciousness, which happens, after all, in our heads, should be so porous, and that interiority should be scripted by adjacent forces. Many poets—Eliot, Auden, and Bishop, for example—share Ashbery’s sense of language as an oddly impersonal tool for expressing subjectivity, which seems, or ought to seem, like a private keepsake. But Ashbery has imagined boundless brilliant ramifications of this problem, and he feels the full range of emotions, from glee to melancholy, about the shoddiness of the subjective language. That’s a paradox (one of Ashbery’s most famous poems, and his working title for the book that became Shadow Train, is “Paradoxes and Oxymorons”) but Ashbery, like Donne, is a poet whose imagination is catalyzed by paradox.

This is why cliché functions so centrally in his poems. In a famous exchange with the poet Ann Lauterbach, Lauterbach exclaimed, “Oh, Mr. Ashbery, I love clichés,” to which Ashbery replied, “And they love you.” Clichés and stereotypes are Ashbery’s expressive unit. Cliché was originally a typesetter’s term for those plates devoted not to individual letters but to phrases so common that a slug was molded for them. Cliché is language that has been repeated so often it becomes infinitely repeatable. It “loves us” because it is inevitable; we “love it” as a way of mastering, by ingenious bricolage, the language that saturates us anyway. Ashbery’s one-size-fits-all confessional poem, “Soonest Mended,” which substitutes “we” for “I” and “they” for “you,” and whose governing tense is the past general (“we were always,” “they were always”), laments the impossibility of reducing experience to “a small variant…to be small and clear and free.” The best that an individual can do is to recall “moments, years,/Solid with reality, faces, namable events, kisses, heroic acts,/…as though meaning could be cast aside some day/When it had been outgrown.”

Locating cliché so close to the core of identity, Ashbery’s introspection often takes the form of self-portraiture, the creation of duplicates. This is a constant from the very beginning of his career, in “The Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers” through the poem many consider his masterpiece, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” Both poems are about looking at images: in the former, a childhood photo, in the latter, the great Mannerist painting by Parmigianino. “The Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers,” like the childhood photograph it describes, poses for the amusement of a future self. Fleeing from that “picture/ Of my small self” (“My head among the blazing phlox/Seemed a pale and gigantic fungus”) is what “The Picture of J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers” does, substituting a verbal picture for a photograph, a collage-self made up of far-flung elements for the reductive snapshot of childhood, an alternative “comic version of myself” for the downbeat attitudes artists take toward their childhoods. The élan of saying farewell soon fades; that “small self,” since he launched your present appetites, owns you. From the point of view of style—porous, mercurial, strategic—having grown up in Sodus, New York, in the 1930s, is just as unreal and absurd as having grown up a fungus.

By 1975, with the publication of “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” Ashbery now felt like a reflection of a reflection of a reflection. The poem is about the painting that Parmigianino copied from a mirror image, whose reproduction Ashbery had first seen in a New York Times review of Sydney Freedberg’s monograph and later, in Provincetown, reencountered in a cheap art book. “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is, like the painting it describes, a brilliant contrivance for gathering the self distributed across time back into one place and into a single relation, a “circle of your intentions” that “perpetuate the enchantment of self with self.”

It is a love poem, certainly the shrewdest love poem of our time. The feeling of being a copy of a copy, of finding, everywhere, likenesses and analogies for oneself, is by nature an erotic feeling. “I like to speak in rhymes, because I am a rhyme myself”: this is Vaslav Nijinsky’s gnomic statement, quoted by Ashbery as an epigraph to “Friends.” “Ashbery” is also an echo of “Nijinsky,” the name of the great, gay, Russian dancer, poet, and diarist. “Mirrors reflecting themselves,” writes Pierre Martory in “The Landscapist,” a poem Ashbery later translated: “where should we look?” (The names “Ashbery” and “Martory” are half-rhymes, just as the name “Ashbery” echoes that of his longtime partner, “Kermani.”) When Ashbery met Martory in Paris in the mid-1950s, Martory was reading American poets; Ashbery was learning French and reading the French poets who had influenced Martory. Martory loved American culture and soaked up Ashbery’s encyclopedic knowledge of American movies, radio programs, music, and art. Ashbery was making money by translating (under the name Jonas Berry) French bodice-rippers. When Martory died in 1998 and Ashbery dedicated a book to him (the second book he had dedicated to Martory, The Tennis Court Oath being the first) he called it Your Name Here.

And so “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” the poem written by a middle-aged man about the painting done by a young man, the poem about the time that has elapsed between Ashbery’s own early manhood, when he first saw the painting in the Times review, and his time in Europe, when he first saw it in person, and his middle age, when he wrote the poem, is also, in its way, dedicated to Martory. Elapsed time is consecrated for him. Commenting on the “urgency” cast upon the serene painting by “the shadow of the city,” Ashbery inventories all the cities whose realities shadow his poem:

The shadow of the city injects its own
Urgency: Rome where Francesco
Was at work during the Sack: his inventions
Amazed the soldiers who burst in on him;
They decided to spare his life, but he left soon after;
Vienna where the painting is today, where
I saw it with Pierre in the summer of 1959; New York
Where I am now, which is a logarithm
Of other cities.

All artists dream of making “inventions” so brilliant that an invading army would lay down its arms. “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is Ashbery’s tour-de-force defense against the passing of time, which threatens, after all, to “sack” the names of cities, the names of lovers, the meaning attendant upon blips like “the summer of 1959.”

3.

Ashbery’s Collected Poems is perhaps best read as autobiography by other means, a turning-on-its-head of autobiographical conventions that nevertheless reads like the story of the growth of this poet’s mind. In Ashbery’s later long poem, “A Wave,” the poet movingly attempts to reorient himself with this “‘sense’—/The little of my life that I can see—that answers me/Like a dog, and wags its tail, though excitement and fidelity are/About all that ever gets expressed?” And yet those memorized images and data from the past—the “sense” we make when someone asks us where we’re from, what we do, what our parents were like—erode as that poem, among Ashbery’s greatest, moves on and away.

Those memorized bits of the past can feel like hard quiz questions. Ashbery was a contestant, at age fourteen, on the radio program Quiz Kids. A little-known poem, for me among his very best, is “One Hundred Multiple-Choice Questions.” The poem acts as his scrambled memoir of early adolescence. Here, for example, is question 13:

The announcer of the Fibber McGee Radio show was
A) Frank McHugh
B) Durward Kirby
C) Basil Rysdale
D) Graham MacNamee
E) Harlow Wilcox
F) Don Wilson

The answer is: E) Harlow Wilcox. Question 13 might have been, in other hands, a list of battleships or baseball players or ballerinas; in Ashbery’s own hands at another moment in time, it might have been a different list of radio personalities, in another order, and the answer might have been Don Wilson. Quizzes live on the facts; poems are full of fibs, and the chief fibber here, a rhyme for “Ashbery” that also suggests the pronoun “me,” is Fibber McGee. (Lots of fun could be had with these names: if “McGee” suggests “me,” then surely “McHugh” echoes “you.”) Everything about this list of names feels like a choice in the direction of ephemera, and yet the names keep straying onto autobiographical grounds, as though beckoned by the distant fact of Ashbery’s short Quiz Kids career.

Other “quiz” questions suggest that great but largely elided subject in Ashbery, sex. What was it like to be a gay kid in the 1930s in a snowy outpost? See questions 87 and 88:

There is this whole other world of sex stimulation in
A) less grimacing
B) no beard or gold tooth
C) change in facial features to guile rather than leer
D) friendly face and voice
E) seventh grade
F) a social call

Raunchier version of the old set-piece still exist in
A) “balling”
B) old lady
C) railroad apartment
D) sex therapy
E) so-called “abnormal” pattern
F) stiff prick

The two questions merge: the child in “seventh grade” exhibits a “so-called ‘abnormal’ pattern” and, maybe, masturbates for the first time (“stiff prick”); the middle-aged poet (Ashbery was forty-four when he wrote “One Hundred Multiple-Choice Questions”) imagines the burlesque “set-piece” of old age, its costumes (“beard” and “gold tooth”), its lonely apartments and old ladies and men whose faces cannot be made not to leer. It’s all grotesque and hilarious, made the more so by the off-setting of language by slight errors of agreement (“version” should take “exists”) and unattributed quotation. His ear for vernacular (railroad apartments and so-called “abnormal patterns” are, first and foremost, things people say) here serves to draw us closer to human disaster. (“Age is the one disaster,” Ronald Firbank wrote, a remark Ashbery has quoted.) The railroad apartment, insignia of lonely old age, serves, like a train depot, only the one purpose: to sit and wait for arriving tenant after arriving tenant, the last stop on the mortal line.

The Skaters,” published in 1966, is the center of Ashbery’s early work and the poem in this volume anyone who thinks they dislike Ashbery should reckon with. The “skaters” of the poem’s title are selves drawn out to the vanishing point, then returning. The figure 8 (also the sign for infinity) is their principle of motion. In the collections of language we call poems, poets, like skaters, “elaborate their distances,/Taking a separate line to its end.”

When he wrote the poem in 1961, Ashbery had just started composing on a typewriter. A fast typist, he could now reach the ends of his lines before he forgot them, a major improvement on longhand composition. In the foreground of “The Skaters,” “the intensity of minor acts,” like typescript on a page, is “blotted in an incredible mess of dark colors.” And yet those little letters promise to deliver us “to Land’s End, to the ends of the earth!”

The Skaters,” divided into four sections that correspond very roughly to four stages of life, draws on Ashbery’s memory of “boredom and a rather lonely childhood on our farm,” leavened only by “trying to amuse ourselves in the snow.” The poem includes quotations from a book for children, 300 Things a Bright Boy Can Do. Ashbery as a child had loved a similar book, The Book of Knowledge, the children’s encyclopedia edited by Arthur Mee and sold, in America, door-to-door in installments. The Book of Knowledge is an unusual encyclopedia, unalphabetized, organized into intermittent sub-books (“The Book of Wonder,” “The Book of Stories,” “The Book of Poetry,” “Things to Make and Things to Do”) and therefore useless as a conventional reference book. A capsule version of the Aeneid (“with quotations from Dr. J.W. Duff’s blank-verse version”) rests next to an article titled “How a Lock Is Made.”

In “The Book of Wonder,” children’s questions are intercalated and answered with touching deadpan: “Why cannot two people settle disputes?”; “Do animals feel pain?”; “Why Does Ink Stain, While Water Does Not?” In “Things to Make and Things to Do”—Ashbery’s favorite chapter—we find instructions for making a sled and a lasso, for doing magic tricks (“The Disappearing Penny”) and repairing an electrical cord. “What Place Are We In” is the name of a “game to play while we are sitting around the fire on a cold winter’s day.” There are illustrations on nearly every page: “How Man Has Improved the Wild Fruits,” “Britain’s Golden Age in Art.”

A child’s absorption as he painstakingly makes a lasso or makes a penny disappear is the model of attention Ashbery proposes in “The Skaters.” That’s how those skaters cutting their little homemade infinities into the ice inhabit time: “The figure 8 is the perfect symbol/Of the freedom to be gained in this kind of activity.” At the other end of the temporal spectrum are the sad retrospective summaries, obituaries in the first person with occasional details smudged:

This is my fourteenth year as governor of C province.
I was little more than a lad when I first came here.
Now I am old but scarcely any wiser.
So little are white hair and a wrinkled forehead a sign
of wisdom!…


“At thirty-two I came up to take my examination at the
university.
The U wax factory, it seemed, wanted a new general manager.
I was the sole applicant for the job, but it was refused me.
So I have preferred to finish my life
In the quietude of this floral retreat.”

4.

This book is more than a massive achievement: it is half of one, with the second half on its way. Actually it’s a little less than half, since Ashbery’s work is still constantly expanding. In the last year alone Ashbery has published a collection of new poems, A Worldly Country, that ranks with his very best, Selected Later Poems, an enchanting collection of his translations of Martory, The Landscapist, and now this first volume of his Collected Poems. Plus he made his art-world debut at the age of eighty-one, with a show of marvelous, modest collages at Tibor de Nagy Gallery in Manhattan. The two homes he shares with his archivist and partner David Kermani—an apartment in Chelsea and a house in Hudson, New York—are themselves works of art, created environments as ingeniously composed as his poems. (The homes, too, have begun to attract exegetes: see www .raintaxi.com.) Ashbery’s newest poems that have just started to crop up in magazines are rich, full, funny, twilit: exquisite late poems that rank even with Stevens’s “The Rock.”

Ashbery once imagined with horror the spectacle of “people sitting around and getting stoned, reading [my poems] aloud, and saying ‘Man, listen to this.’” That would indeed be one response to this book. A better one would be to see that figuring things out—I intend the pun—is Ashbery’s chief activity of mind; that poem after poem makes an attempt to bring reality into something like intelligible shape; that trying and failing to make sense of the world as given, the self as lived, is Ashbery’s great, sad subject. The readerly license to passively “enjoy” a poet this rigorous, tragic, and funny, a book this encyclopedic in its representation of mind and culture, is hereby revoked. Let us have no more calls to listen to “the music” of Ashbery or to appreciate his “movement.” Ashbery is supremely what Robert Frost called poets to be: a “man of prowess.” His readers had better bring prowess to match.

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