John Ashbery
John Ashbery; drawing by David Levine

There is room in our literature for John Ashbery. The poems in his new book are seldom coherent, shapely, or intelligible; neither their sounds nor their rhythms go far to please the ear; they hardly convey the poet’s character in the usual sense. Mr. Ashbery may hope to surprise us agreeably with the leaps or turns of his mind from image to insight and back again; and he may challenge us to make the brightest of these connections ourselves. But most of his work will tire nearly all his readers.

Yet this poetry has its design. Behind much serious writing of the last hundred years lives the belief that the highest use of literature is neither pleasure nor edification. We are hardly supposed to become better citizens by reading Mallarmé or Wallace Stevens. Neither are we supposed merely to titillate ourselves as we would be titillated by an evening of fireworks. The poems in the tradition that prepares us for Ashbery are serious without being conventionally moral. They may delight us, but we say they do more than delight. What then can they accomplish?

One answer is that they bring more of reality into consciousness. They enlarge the world, make us aware of the aspects that do not fit our purposeful careers or our selective view of usefulness. They remind us of the changes and chances of things, of the happy accidents that underlie so much that we claim for deliberate industry. They teach the rewards of passivity, of letting the life of sensation impose its order on us, of enjoying the designs that start up in spite of us, as we raise our eyes from a newspaper while smelling bread in the oven, hearing Brahms on the phonograph, and feeling the heat of a wood fire, all linked in the welcome surprise of a composition that fades at once.

Such poems restore the freshness and sharpness of preconscious impressions, the unclouded moments of pure feeling, like the first time one tasted boysenberry sherbet—before one knew about boysenberries. Language too should be restored by such poetry to the denseness and mystery of words without their primary meaning—the ugliness of “unction,” or as James Schuyler said, “the sinuous beauty of words like allergy / the tonic resonance of / pill when used as in / ‘she is a pill.’ ”

Schuyler, a more gifted poet than Ashbery, can accomplish these ends with verve and wit, a command of language and a visual acuteness that engage the reader, delight him, opening his mind to the excitement of city landscapes, sounds and smells, to rural artifice, to the humorous charm of our objects, books, furniture, and emotions as they evoke and link up with one another, piercingly reminding us of human intimacies.

Ashbery’s response to these things is different. He once described the existence of civilized men today as an effort to cushion themselves against the realities of “alienated life” with chosen objects, art, people, and attitudes. Man’s fate, he has said, is boredom; we are “condemned to putter about the universe, half-heartedly trying to make sense of it.” He has spoken of our “urban bleakness, both spiritual and architectural.” He has called our time a “forlorn, transistorized age,” and said this age seems to believe that “a lot of chance and a little organization reflect its temper.” In art, he has said, “in a sense, any change has to be for the better, since it shows that the artist hasn’t yet given in to the ever-present temptation to stand still.”

For such a man, as for Mallarmé, obscurity is essential to poetry. The poem itself must become an exercise in re-examining the world from which the self has become alienated. We must confront its language with the same audacity that we want when confronting the darkened world within us and without. To offer a clear meaning would be to fix the reader in his place, to turn him away from the proper business of poetry by directing him to an apparent subject. It would be like saying the “subject” of a baroque quartet was the scene of dancing peasants that gave the composer one of his tunes. Instead, the act of reading must become the purpose of the poem.

Consequently, the poem must stand by itself as the world stands by itself. It must change as the world changes. It must offer the same challenge as the world. And therefore, the poet as a private person must not appear in it.

No poetry is less confessional than Ashbery’s. He brings his impressions of phenomena into his poetry: the time of day, the changes in weather, the seasons, light and color, phrases overheard or picked out of newspapers. He brings in generalized emotions of disappointment, anxiety, apprehension, satisfaction, expectation. He refers to paintings, places, stories of which the phenomena remind him. He even offers statements and propositions, so long as they occur like events, detached sentences evoked by the phenomena, and not emerging from a private chain of reasoning. The poet becomes, like Newton’s God, a hidden person for whom the universe is a sensorium.


So the impressions of the poet in the act of composing are precisely what define his work: the rain that is suddenly evocative for him, the music that drifts through the doorway. This shifting assemblage of changing sensations is his substance. He may well have a theme in mind—a person, an object—but he does not normally render or describe it. He merely supplies the phrases, images that reach him as he contemplates the theme, which of course the reader is not asked to discover.

Frank O’Hara thought of the color orange and wrote pages “not of orange, of / words, of how terrible orange is / and life.” He produced twelve poems without mentioning “orange,” and called the whole thing “Oranges.” Sometimes, as in “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” the last poem in Ashbery’s new book, the theme is fully presented. Generally, it is to be thrown away after its job is done—after it has given the poet an occasion for focusing his impressions. The reader’s responsibility might be to explain the poem to the author without reference to its germinal starting point.

So Ashbery tries to make us act out the division between workaday reality and those moments of transcendence that are like moments of love or of mystical communion. Up from the obscure, low-keyed passages arise lines clearly, lyrically conveying the sense of insight, comprehensive vision, that tantalizes us from time to time with heavenly possibilities, “a glance, a ballade / That takes in the whole world, now, but lightly, / Still lightly, but with wide authority and tact.”

The danger in the low-keyed passages—a danger Ashbery seldom avoids—is that they will move dully as well as darkly. Their fragmentary, disjointed, or maddeningly evasive nature not only baffles but bores the reader. If a poet does find most of reality meaningless, he is ill-advised to proportion his verses accordingly, and to deal out lengths of murk as settings for brief illuminations. How does one keep the background alive and attractive without letting it overwhelm the foreground?

Ashbery does much with omens and foreshadowings, suspense and recollection. He gives us provocative broken images, references to time and mood, that lead toward or away from transcendence. The moon of imagination goes up the sky, and “a sigh heaves from all the small things on earth, / The books, the papers, the old garters and union-suit buttons / Kept in a white cardboard box somewhere….”

He also gives parodic versions of the small talk of small people, or he catches the automatic gestures of mechanical lives. He works out funny allegories of the way routine traps us, deafening our ears to messages from the sublime, as when the angelic messenger urges the poet to communicate with him, but the poet goes on “looking at old-fashioned plaids” to dress up his dreary existence.

Ashbery is not so solemn that he misses the absurdity of his enterprise. He knows the visions are illusory, and that his aims contradict one another. Often, therefore, he turns on himself and ridicules the view of the poet as the light of the world. In “As You Came from the Holy Land,” he elaborates the comic parallels between the messianic bard (come to restore the dead self to imaginative life) and the passion of Christ. In “Soonest Mended” (from an earlier collection) he compares the poet, rescuing the self from alienation (in ye olde “technological society”), to Ruggiero rescuing Angelica in Ariosto’s poem; only it is not Ruggiero but Happy Hooligan.

Yet self-satire is not enough to compensate for the limitations of Ashbery’s work. When one has shown there is purpose in his method, one has not endowed the method with the attributes rightfully to be sought in poetry. Among the muddles of our critics is the assumption that if an author has persuasive theoretical grounds for his literary practice, the reader ought to be satisfied that what the man writes is good. There is no logical connection between those propositions; and in Ashbery’s work the case collapses of its own weight, because so many readers are dismayed when they try (intelligently and seriously) to enjoy his poems. I find it sinister that the most successful one in his new book—the last and longest of the collection—deals with the theory behind it.

Donald Justice has some kinship with Ashbery. The master to whom both seem deeply related is Wallace Stevens. But there is a difference between the author of “Peter Quince at the Clavier” and the one whom Jarrell named “G. E. Moore at the spinet.” Justice recalls the music, elegance, and passion of Stevens, not his devotion to aesthetics. In Justice’s latest book, certainly his best, the poet keeps his old attachment to the community of vulnerable creatures—lovers, children, the old, the weak. And he bestows on them the richness of sound and cadence, the depth of feeling and subtlety of language that he displayed in his earlier collections.


What draws him to such people is not their dependence but their openness to affection and fantasy, to strong emotions and wild thoughts. For Justice, the receptivity of the artist feeds both his creative imagination and his human sympathy, two aspects of one impulse. Conversely, what seems to matter most to him, in the labors of art, is the chance the imagination offers us to keep in touch with those who share our world but not our neighborhood: the dead, the remote, those imprisoned by their frailty or foolishness.

Justice has marvelous poems about the way the creative process goes: the need to be tough, violent, and fearful at the same time (“ABC”); the difficulty of the effort and the littleness of the reward (“Sonatina in Green”). One that exemplifies his power to charm us is “The Telephone Number of the Muse.” Here the poet feels his talent is dwindling; his muse has turned to other, younger lovers:

I call her up sometimes, long distance now.
And she still knows my voice, but I can hear,
Always beyond the music of her phonograph,
The laughter of the young men with their keys.

The unfashionable refinement of the syntax, like the unfashionable purity of the language, is typical of Justice. Both these features are touching contrasts to his pathos when Justice gives in to the elegiac mood and turns to his central concern. This is with the class of people who sink in the trajectory of their wayward natures, who leave the tribe sooner than alter their own essence. I suppose that for him the poets belong to this class.

The circular patterns that Justice loves sound appropriate to the solitary character of such people, turned back on themselves, shut in willingly or unwillingly, caught in irreversible cycles. No wonder he finds so much occupation for mirrors, guitars, pianos, repetitions of words and syllables. Such images and devices, such iterative and musical designs, suit the meditations and recapitulations of the solitary life.

The dead belong here, because our relation with them must be circular. They prepared us for their place, and we have taken it. The hushed tone that marks Justice’s voice mounts to reverence as he evokes his relation to his father in “Sonatina in Yellow.” Here, the ambiguities, continuities, and repetitions move parallel to memory and forgetfulness, in a sequence impressively like a musical modulation. Love for the dead suggests love for the past, the poet’s desire to keep with him the beauty and awfulness of the filiation that he will hand on in his turn; and the imagination then seems our one genuine weapon against mortality:

The pages of the album,
As they are turned, turn yellow; a word,

Once spoken, obsolete,
No longer what was meant. Say it.
The meanings come, or come back later,
Unobtrusive, taking their places.

Solitude falls into loneliness, isolation decays to imprisonment, repression gives way to murder, as Justice travels across his land of self-enclosures. And we meet the neurotic in the sanitarium, longing to get back to the way of life that sent her there (“A Letter”), or the love-hungry poet (not Justice), reliving in his poems his love-hungry youth (“Portrait with Flashlight”). Because he has the habit of understatement and terseness in an era when overexpression is normal, Justice may sound too reserved. But the intensity of vision that directs his work will be evident to those who care to observe it, as when the poet admits his complicity in the terrors he conveys:

You have no name, intimate crime,
Into which I might plunge my hand.
Your knives have entered many pillows,
But you leave nothing behind.
(“The Confession”)

In making these new poems. Justice discarded some of his old traits. He has given up regular meters for free verse. He has enlarged his allotment of dreamlike images and veiled meanings. But his ear and his sense of design are so reliable that the poems remain seductive in sound and shape.

He has not reduced his most engaging feature, the mixture of gentleness with power. The confidence Justice has in his own selfhood enables him to reach out to lives that would unsettle a thinner character; and he can obey his admonition in “ABC”:

Be the statue leaning out from the stone, the stone also, torn between past and future, and the hammer, whose strength we share.

This Issue

October 16, 1975