About a year and a half ago in The New Yorker, Howard Moss published what is, I think, probably the best poem he has ever written. The poem is called “Chekhov.” It has all the characteristic virtues of Moss’s other poems—and then surpasses those, transmutes them. It has the poet’s typical tone of “tireless, cool, / Calm, and precise lament”; his laconic sense of exhilaration and depletion, coming in cycles, “a little bit of both: frenzy and resting”; his subtle, rather resentful realization of the “Oedipal strangulations” buried at the heart of everything, the heart of memory (a number of Moss’s poems could really be christened with a simple precept: there’s an awful lot of tomorrow in the past, or vice versa); his forlorn appreciation of the aspects of love, if not the aspects of passion, of the limits of life, if not the untowardness of life, of, at times, the sheer indifference of life to life (Moss’s weather, usually, is the calm before the storm—the storm that never happens)—above all, and beautifully, “Chekhov” demonstrates his ability to encapsulate an emotion in an epigram.
The poem also has, I think, none of Moss’s characteristic faults. For it has always been difficult for me to imagine what the author of “Particular Beauties” or “The Baystone” or “Chekhov” would really have to say to the author of “History” or “Explorers” or any of the other merely decorous, merely prudential pieces scattered throughout the Selected Poems. At times, surely, Moss loves not wisely but too well the elegantly naturalistic, didactic, descriptive portraits of phenomena, snapshots of the poet or one of his personae watering the geraniums on the roof garden or counting the fringy needles of the pine, a cautionary word or two scribbled at the bottom: “The great in the small design.” Often he thinks that’s reality. But that’s neither reality nor really poetry. Poetry is always going beyond phenomena into noumena. The other is simply a sort of gentlemanly malaise, poems to be read to a Poetry Society, one simile almost geometrically connected to another simile, a certain evasive timidity masquerading as taste, good taste—and how boring that is.
In “Chekhov,” though, nothing is boring. It is the most delicate, most forthright statement of Moss’s particular situation, the situation of Chekhov’s plays as well, a poem where what one knows and what one feels come together suddenly and miraculously, like receiving a letter in the mail you’ve written to yourself—explaining everything. A poem about creation, about the sad subtleties of the imagination, about what it means to be a poet, an artist; about life as a series of “still-lifes,” always “subject to the risk of animation”; about the frail drama of towns and orchards and lakes where “the puzzled players change their places,” where “property and battle-fields turn out to share / A fate in common—they exchange hands”; about adventure or the absence of adventure, where we can be “racing the wolves at thirty below / In a ravine whiplashed by snow…Waiting for a future that will never be,” where the dim depressing half-light of morning becomes the twilight of the mind, “mirroring the mind, its sad affections,” its search for security—finding it, losing it, moving on….
Among all the hells that go on talking,
Only one is real, though it is silent,
And everything leads up to it—to lose
The land, to lose the very ground you stand on….
Moss also likes maps. (I wonder how many of his readers are aware of that?) The ground of one’s being…OK, so long as it shifts and one can keep traveling. But I think his journeys are faute de mieux. In his sparkling lines there’s always a lot of stillness and silence. He longs for the dead center, the beautiful resolution—love, of course, romantic love, but perhaps something more, something beyond that. Yet he distrusts it, or he disappoints it, or more likely, it disappoints him. Maybe that accounts for his wit. Humor is really the revenge the sensitive man takes on the heart—or rather other people’s hearts which can be fantastically insensitive. It doesn’t appear to hinder his reckonings, though. Probably the frisson of “Arsenic,” an oddly glittering poem built upon a sense of pique, a not uncommon feeling with Moss, a poem about “the importunate, slovenly younger thinkers” who will soon be telling the poet who he is, occurs when he says, quite simply, but with just the right touch of dryness to make it believable:
I have loved three times—
Readers beware whenever poets tell you how much they have loved: they are usually liars. Yet Moss manages it, at least in “Arsenic,” manages to be so positive about something so ambiguous. But then I really don’t think he cares that much for ambiguities. Up to a point, yes. There’s the Proustian side of him, the interest he has always taken in a certain amount of sardonic, chatty, wryly convoluted uncertainty. (Not for nothing, I think, are this poet’s favorite words “disguised” and “discrepancies” and “temperamental”; “thinly disguised”—a favorite phrase.) Also a Proustian side I can’t say I care much for. Proust the old yenta, Moses among the fleshpots, the Proust of the downfall of Charlus and qui aime bien châtie bien. But I imagine the Proustian stuff is really a sort of taste he acquired in the cultural afterhours; I don’t think it’s innate. Chekhov seems to me to be closer to the plainness of truth, home truths, to the ordinariness of human relations: “Each so different and each the same.” Also Chekhov preoccupied with the sort of humdrum minutiae of guitars and teakettles which his characters hawk about with them on the stage or on the page. All those wistfully uttered, hazily understood visions and frustrations.
In the tales and plays of Chekhov, as in the poems of Howard Moss, we have no second chances. All too human, the typical Chekhovian characters eternally watch the parade passing by, preferring fancy to action: the sisters never do get to Moscow; an old family retainer, forgotten by everyone, barely hears the strokes of the axes melodiously dismembering the cherry orchard; a graybeard roué performs a half-drunken jig—no more dreams of the gay life for him. In the exquisitely null dull melancholy world of Chekhov, as in Moss, fate is time, and missed opportunities bury everyone.
Anyway, out of these special settings and emphases, out of life as folly and heartache, out of the good and the true, the wise and the sad, Moss has created his own world. I’ve often wondered how it was done, how in his works he arrived at his peculiarly elegiac, halting individuality. Certainly he doesn’t broadcast it. One has to listen very attentively. There are the handful of influences to be got through, the slight echoes of other people’s work, other poets’ cunning—Donne and Marvell, Eliot and Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop—but eventually his own sound can be heard.
It has in it, I think, something of the sea’s sad strong relaxed rhythms; a bit of the tart, piercing gossip of good dinner parties, the poet perhaps crestfallen the next morning remembering that he really did enjoy the maliciousness of a Madame Verdurin on his right, the sliminess of a Morel on his left; a lot of the city, the awful good-bye blues of the city as “two people sit / Quite calmly under a blood-red lamp / In a Chinese restaurant” destroying each other; and then, of course, the bitter, yet nostalgic, rather rumpled memories of the family, of bondage to the family, of “the baby he’d been hiding / Wrapped in his skin, maybe his heart” (“Finding Them Lost,” “Long Island Springs”), somehow always connected with that other rueful, withering, yet romantic evocation of past affairs, past loves. (Has Moss ever written a love poem that was a celebration of love itself, its immediacy, rather than l’amour maladie?)
Away from all that, though, the poet himself stands with his own chastening sense of fantasy and foreboding, the puritan ethic and self-mastery, experience and acceptance (almost resignation), which seems to me to be his typical stance in the world. Of course it has grown more assured and pronounced in the later poems, but by then he’s earned his right to be who he is, been able to do battle with the world, the depressing literary world, generally; got to know its rules and its loopholes, its sadomasochistic pinnings and underpinnings; been able to bend a little and compromise, but also fight and win a few rounds. He’s clearly very aware of these rights, proud to have reaped them. It’s really what makes him keep writing poems. But it doesn’t make the self, when sad (which is often), any the less desolate; it merely heightens everything, adds significance to what would otherwise be ephemeral or blank.
Think how many sad people or sadnesses there are in the world, and how few times these people and these sadnesses are allowed to express themselves. Those are the other “strangulations.” All artists, of course, have to be grateful that if, like the rest of us, they are unable to get out of things, they are able to get “things out,” even though the act, which may be liberating, is really of no comfort. Nor does it much ease the bane, alter the pattern—what Leopardi calls l’inganno estremo, the last deceit, occurs heedlessly again and again.
Which brings me, finally, to Moss’s most familiar strain. For though he can cherish the eccentricity of a Mr. Calava breezily puttering about at dawn along the shores of the Hamptons, “a connoisseur of broken glass,” or celebrate an “imaginary Brazil” or the gentle “giant wit” of Einstein “among the homilies,” there is one feeling, surely, that imperils all the others, the feeling of entrapment, the unredemptive sense that after a certain number of agitations and relationships—after “daylight draws / Two spindles in the distance,” placing “a house here, there a dune,” after “the persistence of song” which always leads to “that wanting which ends in hurting,” after “the changing of the gods”—one keeps meeting the same face over and over, one’s own face, really, “far body and near spirit,” with wonder and surprise and a little horror, whenever the illusions or actualities (of empathy, of love, of work accomplished and fear of failure laid to rest) dissolve. Then one is left either with the images and markers of the weather outside us or within us—“The Stairs,” for instance:
Starting out as love, it climbed the stairs,
And then came down as something else again;
I did not recognize its killing features
Until I saw they were my very own…
Or, more drastically, a sense of the botched adventure, the payment of the last farthing. From “Sawdust”:
So get the matches and the needles ready,
The chains, the belts, the para- phernalia—
The bulging, red-eyed children plunge again
Into the powerless mirrors of power,
Still wondering, as the gearshifts move,
If pain is a substitute for love, or love.
Payment figures strongly in these keen, beautifully etched poems, as do guilt and rage, largely unexpressed rage and unassuaged guilt…but one could go on and on.
The ability to go on and on has always struck me as the signal characteristic of the work of John Ashbery. Many of Ashbery’s poems are really improvisations on the theme of flux. Three Poems, I suppose, is an aria on the subject. Perhaps I should say an oratorio. Some people have frankly confessed that they have been unable to get through these recent prose poems of Ashbery’s. And they have something there. I read every word, but it was a struggle. One difficulty, I suspect, is Ashbery’s particular way with reality, his slit-eyed way of looking at things. (“Her eyes are open,” remarks the servant of the sleepwalking Lady Macbeth. “Yes,” replies the doctor, “but their sense is shut.”) Then, too, Ashbery is so casually tyrannical about information—he adds and diminishes at will. Often the shaping of stanza, pace, and point, the balancing of one mood against another mood seem absolutely unknown to him—actually, I’m sure, they simply bore him.
Usually his poems are full of interrogations and interruptions, errors and contradictions, crevices of delight in a craggy landscape, contemplative poems exhilarating in a constant reversal toward the unexpected, going against the grain, presenting, say (as happens frequently in the playful earlier works), philosophical speculations with the deadpan delivery of a weather report, or romantic effusions with the air of an old bore explaining to you the ins and outs of operating an electric mower when you go to buy one at your hardware store.
Ashbery, I think, is a secretive soul always stirred by dislocation. Or by travel and relocation. On the way—that’s his motto. How often in his rare and adventurous poems do his descriptions become prescriptions. How often are we being sent to “the middle of the desert,” or “to a violent sea,” or somewhere we’ve already been “to nurse some private project.” How often are we confronted with the spectacle of sheer movement, an array of enchanting panoramas heralding “the academy of the future” or browsing in “the new school of the trivial,” settings of rivers and mountains, “of telephone poles and the tops of trees,” settings always capable of accommodating many disparate elements, ambagious but luminous in a mysterious way.
Or we’re watching, as we do at the end of “The Skaters,” a long lissome poem about exile and “swift blades o’er the ice,” the constellations “rising / In perfect order: Taurus, Leo, Gemini.” (Ashbery seems to have scrambled the order a bit, or perhaps the scramble is meant to be ironical; hard to tell.) Or we’re following, as we do through much of “Clepsydra” and Three Poems, a marvelous ravel of stunning sentences, like the flashing of many long-legged animals trekking over large areas of open country, and then the animals suddenly vanishing—the sense of the sentences, that is—under the shadow of the spreading foliage, leaving one looking for access, perhaps a pause in the onrush, a few brief bright butterfly phrases flickering in the memory (the feel of the morning “before the body / Is changed by the faces of evening”), while the poet, unmindful, goes on with his journeys—new vistas, new ideas; upsetting the regulars at the Poetry Society, at least on the earlier routes, at every twist and turn—mortifying them, more likely, writing:
The clean fart genital enthusiastic
toe prick album serious evening flames
The sky hopes the vanilla bastard
Axle busted over fifth dimwit slump
Surely these lines are not only among the “worst” in contemporary poetry (they are from Ashbery’s second collection, The Tennis Court Oath), but also, I suppose, a sort of screwball homage to Roussel or Cendrars or Apollinaire, as here from Alcools:
Les nuages coulaient comme un
Les becs de gaz pissaient leur flamme au clair de lune
As it turns out, though, Ashbery, of course, wasn’t really interested in clean farts or vanilla bastards or even in the creation of an American surrealism. He had other concerns, far deeper, more personal, concerns with consciousness, aesthetic consciousness, in particular; a methodology of the self—the self as the knower or subject and the self as the thing known or object: a concern as old as Descartes, as new, also, as Beckett.
Reading Three Poems, and then thinking back on Ashbery’s other poems, I kept remembering the author of Molloy and Malone Dies and The Unnameable, Beckett’s wonderful wordy-gurdy, his obstinately wry soliloquies on the calamities of the blood or the cancellations of the self. “People with things, people without things, things without people, what does it matter?” asks Beckett, the old croaker. Beckett is the original SRO, the single-room occupant of contemporary consciousness. Thousands of Samuel Becketts, though they don’t know it, live up and down the West Side of Manhattan, and in all the other West Sides of the world, though it is unlikely, I think, that they would ever say, as Beckett says: “Personally I don’t intend to be bored.”
Ashbery says that, implies that. For what sustains “The Skaters” or “Clepsydra” or “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape” so engagingly here and there if not, in part, the boyishness, the enthusiasm? Ashbery standing at the edge of a dull harbor and experiencing a feeling “again, of emptiness,” but of richness, too, “in the way / The whole thing is organized, on what a miraculous scale.” Also Beckett asking, or one of his characters asking: “Who knows what the ostrich sees in the sand?” Ashbery “knows.” Many of the impenetrable moments of many of the poems are concerned precisely with what the ostrich sees in the sand. Ashbery calls it “the distance,” but the thing’s the same.
Therefore, why not examine the distance?
It seemed he had been repeating the same stupid phrase
Over and over throughout his life….
Ashbery, I suspect, is enamored of distances, of lands that have “not yet risen into view” (the suicide at the end of “Civilization and Its Discontents” who “could only gaze into the distance at my life”), of an “ideal observer,” namely oneself:
For only you could watch yourself so patiently from afar
The way God watches a sinner on the path to redemption….
Much of Ashbery’s vocabulary is romantic, full of “last words” or “words / Under the wind as it moved toward us,” but mock-romantic, because largely so impersonal in tone, and because Ashbery wants to leave out the drama, just as much of Beckett’s vocabulary is scholastic, the remnants of his readings in Aquinas and Dante and Descartes, but mockscholastic, because Beckett wants to—and does—leave out the philosophy.
And here, I suppose, we come to the difference between them. For though both are intellectuals who clearly distrust the mind, though both desire to embark, as Beckett laconically says, on the long voyage home to “stupidity” in order to “learn to feel,” I always believe what Beckett says; I can’t say I always do with Ashbery. It’s a matter of tone, of downrightness. Beckett meanders quite as much as Ashbery meanders. His is one of the most meandering voices in literature. Yet Beckett is never distracted, never deflected from his course. One follows that “white voice” of his as one follows a blood stream through the body, from the arteries, then to the veins, then back to the heart, a complete circle—that terrible “white voice” of his doing or saying exactly as it was meant to do or to say. That, indeed, is Beckett’s genius. Ashbery, it seems to me, is distracted, and often by the sheer daring and beauty of his thought, or by the numberless aesthetic theories that have become for him transcriptions of the self, the self perennially asking: “How does it feel to be outside and inside at the same time?”
Ashbery and Beckett ponder similar subjects: death, love, mortality. Yet in Ashbery’s speech I almost always detect a dimly remembered echo from a child’s encyclopedia, about what happened after the apes came down from the trees, or about the wonders and oddities of life along the shores of the Baltic, or how we discovered the South Pole—“the freshest, least complicated, and earliest of memories”: a distinctive nuance which can create an exquisite delicacy and allure. And yet, I feel, there is in it something factitious as well. For though the figure of the sage appears often as the Wandering Jew of Ashbery’s poems, I’ve rarely read a love poem of Ashbery’s that talks about love as it really is, love as I’m sure Ashbery has experienced it, love which, however transfiguring, is also straitened by cruelty or folly, jealousy or spite.
With Ashbery love, even despondent modern love, seems wrapped in a mist of innocence, a handful of poppies without a “worm i’ the bud.” And death, too; death, for him, is a sort of innocence—not the bleakness and contractedness of age, but death as the ashes of childhood, death as “the cloud ladder” down which we escape, though “the problem has not been solved,” or “death as a new office building filled with modern furniture,” a lyrical or spectral mask, one more “distant image” hovering on the edge of an early fancy.
Of course writers can only do what their lives direct them to do, allow them to be. But our lives are also always being tested by how well we master or do not master the direction that we take. And Ashbery, I feel, has yet to become the master of his journeys that Beckett has become of his. Beckett uses the simplest of tales: we are born from another, we couple with another, and then we depart, singly, at death, to the earth—that’s all there is. But he has found the perfect metaphor to encompass his circular predicament—the immobilization of the self, the embers of lives fading from “loss” to “less”—and the perfect rhythm—the solitary consciousness eternally eavesdropping on its plight, Beckett’s singular accents of disdain and despair—to keep it human and comic and afloat. Ashbery has yet to be that fortunate, most probably because so many of his journeys are really parti pris: an eternally mobile self, a “darting from / Untruth to willed moment,” or a succession of mysteriously declarative, disjunctive affirmations, a dragonfly’s stay against the gloom.
Valéry lamenting long ago that we hardly ever see any more a product of the desire for the perfectly realized work, that instead “novelty, intensity, strangeness—in a word, all the values of surprise—have supplanted it”—there you have an apt summary of what Ashbery is so often about. And yet, ironically, though there is indeed “novelty, intensity, strangeness” to a rapt degree, a number of the poems, eventually, for me, are singularly without surprise. What we hear, for instance, at the beginning of Three Poems, that “the false way and the true way are confounded,” that we are at the point “where there is no way or rather where everything is a way, none more suitable nor more accurate than the last,” we surely hear at the conclusion, Ashbery acknowledging that now “I am quite ready to admit that I am alone, that the film I have been watching all this time may be only a mirror, with all the characters including that of the old aunt played by me in different disguises.”
In between, Ashbery dexterously fingers limitless variations on these chimeras. He ponders “risk” and “security,” the processes of action and the processes of thought, destiny and stasis and transformation; he illustrates and adumbrates and tabulates problem-solving and role-playing and decision-making—the whole book is really a prolonged causerie on how and in what way we are to get through life after a certain age: the arrival of middle age. But since so much of the intellectual and visionary drama—or lack of drama—of Three Poems consists of, primarily, the principle of complimentarity—that is, always accepting as true both terms of a contradiction—no decisions are really exacted, no problems truly drawn. Instead the effect often of Ashbery’s dry and luxurious lines is that of innumerable “strings and emanations that connect everything together,” not at all the simultanéisme he may have intended, but rather an oddly wan pseudo-Romantic merging where everything is forever flowing into everything else, the spice islands with the desert, the wheat fields with the tundra.
Finally, the solutions to the dilemma of the self as subject and object—that where we are or what we have is “enough” or that this is “as it should be” or that the point of the peregrination is the “synthesis of very simple elements in a new and strong, as opposed to old and weak, relation to one another”—well, such revelations can hardly be thought of as meaningful since such solutions were undoubtedly available to Ashbery, as a map of a country is always available to a tourist, long before Ashbery’s quest began. In fact, a few of Ashbery’s conundrums are really never too far from the Moody Blues:
Isn’t life strange,
A turn of the page,
A book without music….*
The trouble with “inspirational” truth then—ultimately the port at which Three Poems berths—is that it is no “truth” at all. Simply a matter of temperament, a means of turning one’s negatives into one’s positives, of saying, for example, that the glass is half full instead of saying that the glass is half empty. The problem, however, is never of quantity, but always of quality. What’s in the glass—that’s what affects us. Ashbery, at times, is poignantly aware of how devastating what effects us can be, as scattered admonitions throughout Three Poems testify, principally that “we must learn to live in others, no matter how abortive or unfriendly their cold, piecemeal renderings of us: they create us.” But Ashbery never grapples with how we live in others, or why, more important, it is often so impossible to live in others. Or when he does deal with these matters, the anguish of experience—what sets us apart from others, what united us with others—is absent. What isn’t absent, what carries Ashbery along from page to page, what makes Three Poems so idyllic and so abstract, is Ashbery’s inordinate interest in speculative enchantment, the spinning about himself again and again of a transcendental aura in the form of solipsistic reverie—doubly dubious, I think, since solipsism denies transcendence, anyway (see Bradley).
In Ashbery, there has always been a catlike presence, both in the poems themselves and in the person these poems reveal: tender, curious, cunning, tremendously independent, sweet, guarded. Above all, like a cat, Ashbery is a born hunter: now prowling about through Deepest Africa; now chasing leaves or scraps of paper, rolling over and over, and then curling up, happily exhausted, beneath a bush; now on the scent for some of the sacred mysteries the feline creatures the Egyptians worshipped were rumored to be seeking here and there. But the pure prime act of the cat—to spring, to pounce, to make the miraculous leap—Ashbery, for me, has yet to perform.
Of course he is by far the most interesting poet of his generation writing; some of the stanzas from “The Bungalows” or “Fragment” or “Voyage in the Blue” alone are bewitching enough to place him head and shoulders above most of his contemporaries. Nor should one forget how unusual a rhetoric Ashbery—and also Frank O’Hara, a more spontaneous poet—brought to American verse. Nothing like that quite existed before, though now and again in Hart Crane one can already hear it beginning to breathe, and with Ashbery there was always Wallace Stevens. Interesting, too, often precisely because Ashbery does not always succeed, precisely because his failures or partial failures are the triumphs of tomorrow on which he and others can build. Also it would be wrong to say, as I suppose has been said, that because Ashbery is so experimental, so capaciously concerned with avoiding “the monotony of perfection by leaving in certain flaws,” connections between his poems or books of poems are hard to come by. “A Last World” and “These Lacustrine Cities,” “The Bungalows” and “Voyage in the Blue” all comment on one another, surely, and “Clepsydra,” it seems to me, is the forerunner of Three Poems. It would be right, though, to imagine that Ashbery would probably profit from a course in brachylogy (I’ll let him look that up).
If Three Poems is really less a heaven of ideas than a limbo of fancies, if in it Ashbery passes far too often through the gate of ivory and not the gate of horn, it has, nevertheless, its share of blessed moments, moments of a relaxed and beautiful austerity, a dehydrated language, strangely shining, as if bathed in the cool clear white light of the ancient limestone islands glittering in the Mediterranean on a spring day.
December 13, 1973