Most of us, if we read modern poetry at all, approach it half in faith and half in fear. Faith that a self-represented craftsman in words may have found a new utterance to offer us, or at least reconstituted an old one in this world of fading palimpsests. Fear on two possible counts: either that we may miss the crucial clues that would tell us if a poem is moving or funny or dirty; or that, if we take seriously texts with little ascertainable meaning and none of the traditional characteristics of poetry, we are falling for a high-level hoax. There are few secure readers of modern poetry, and John Ashbery is not the poet to renew the confidence of the faint-hearted.
Having published ten collections in twenty-five years, Ashbery has created a solid literary reputation as an intelligent, subtle, often obscure poet, whose diction has gradually relaxed toward informality. There has been little shift in his basically paratactic construction. During prolonged residence in Paris in the Fifties and Sixties, Ashbery heeded Eliot’s advice to poets: “Do something else.” He became an art critic and journalist and returned to New York in 1965 to work for seven years as executive editor of Art News. Ashbery’s essays have appeared in widely dispersed magazines like Bizarre (Paris) and The New Yorker, generally on topics related to his own work—Gertrude Stein, Raymond Roussel, and the dynamics of experiment in the arts. He controls an impressively wide culture with a minimum of display. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror collected three major prizes in 1976 and has sold nearly 20,000 copies.
Houseboat Days presents thirty-nine poems that vary in length from four lines to sixteen pages. Ashbery uses varying line lengths, neither stressed nor syllabic, no rhyme, no typographical tricks, conventional punctuation (one poem is unpunctuated), occasional prose passages, and few marked auditory or rhetorical effects. He is content to appear in very sober garb. The titles are not helpful; “Houseboat Days” remains cryptic even if one hears an echo of “Washboat Days,” a book about the era of the bateau lavoir and the Paris cubists. Though one often glimpses the aftermath of parties and other social encounters, these are basically meditative poems. Ashbery gives the impression of a person working without distraction to raise the poetry table in our mental landscape rather than to tap off memorable lines for special occasions. The striking figures that do occur usually transfix a mental state. “Our gestures have taken us farther into the day / Than tomorrow will understand. / They live us.” “Self-knowledge frosts each action, each step taken / Freely.”
It is because Ashbery writes without histrionics and purple passages that he inspires both faith and fear. His confident, unemphatic voice makes us wonder if there is a rebus logic at work in the lines protecting them from immediate understanding. Several considerations underlie Ashbery’s obscurity. Indirection and suggestiveness permit the poet to approach subjects too fragile or tenuous to name directly. There is some ground for our acquired belief that, unless he is a child, the person who blurts things out is a boor. Furthermore poetry that proceeds by evocation requires the reader to supply links, to shoot logical rapids, to detect undertones, and to regulate extraneous noise. If not the common reader, at least the academic critic delights in puzzles and enigmas that require such prowess. Finally, a cryptic style will prevent popular success and any easy insertion into the cultural and commercial mainstream. “Today one must fight acceptance,” Ashbery wrote in 1968, as if the ability to appeal to many readers would be the kiss of death. All these arguments for obscurity can be traced back at least as far as Mallarmé at the end of the last century.
In order to approach Ashbery’s poetry and the degree to which these considerations influence it, I shall quote a complete section from “Fantasia on ‘The Nut-Brown Maid.”‘* In this protracted dialogue between HE and SHE (they appear to be two aspects of a single personality), the details do not cohere into a sustained description or narrative or song. We encounter the immanent past, photographs, an unidentified explosion, a door of uncertain location, a few touches of color. Yet they exist as fragments, summoned forth by a single reciprocating voice seeking its identity.
And last, perhaps, as darkness
Begins to infuse the lawns and silent streets
And the remote estuary, and thickens here, you mention
The slamming of a door I wasn’t supposed to know about,
That took years. Each of us circles
Around some simple but vital miss- ing piece of information,
And, at the end, as now, finding no substitute,
Writes his own mark grotesquely with a stick in snow,
The signature of many connected seconds of indecision.
What I am writing to say is, the timing, not
The contents, is what matters. All this could have happened
Long ago, or at least on some other day,
And not meant much except insofar as the eye
Extracts a progress from almost anything. But then
It wouldn’t have become a toy. And all the myths,
Legends and misinterpretations, would have scattered
At a single pistol shot. And it would no longer know what I know.
Like the poem as a whole, these lines convey the sense of a container without contents, or of a Moebius strip (mentioned two pages earlier) turning endlessly back into itself.
In speaking of his own poetry, Ashbery frequently cites music as his ideal. He doesn’t mean song or even a noticeable use of aural effects. In an autobiographical note he writes: “What I like about music is its ability of being convincing, of carrying an argument through successfully to the finish, though the terms of this argument remain unknown quantities.” Are we to read the shrouded, ominous lines quoted above as a kind of music of thought, without trying to crack the flickering codes? It is hard not to grasp at them. A door quickly becomes something momentous, final. You pass through it, close or open it. What sequence does its slamming terminate? or initiate? Are these all disembodied acts of mind? The “missing piece of information” suggests a negative space surrounded by legends and misinterpretations. We are in an elusive country of virtualities and conditionals.
I cannot find the argument, even musical, but I do find the unknown quantities: the pronouns. In reading Houseboat Days I became increasingly aware of the floating personal pronouns that begin to function like algebraic x’s, y’s, and z’s, and then of an even more pervasive symbol, possibly a constant: namely, it. The unascertainable it that appears twice in the last four lines above has its counterpart in poem after poem—without antecedent or attribute. In the poem “Saying It to Keep It from Happening,” we never learn what is at stake. Is there a secret? Or are we to improvise meanings for these unknowns as in a psychological projective test? At different times using Gertrude Stein and Robert Graves to support him, Ashbery insists that there is always a story—and only one story. Yet he never identifies one. Does the “it” cover an uncomfortable personal mystery? We are given some evidence that these are all metamorphoses of love poems.
Yet I think the answer is no. Ashbery’s factotum pronoun seems to reach toward a fleeting intensity or raptness, a condition close to the privileged moment that haunts large areas of modernist literature. In “The Skaters,” an earlier long poem of flashes and reminiscences, Ashbery writes that “One seizes these moments as they come along.” And the highly expository yet moving prose-poem, “The New Spirit” (in Three Poems, 1972), presents a set of clarified moments cubistically, free of perspective. “To formulate yourself around this hollow, empty sphere…. To be your breath as it is taken in and shoved out. Then, quietly, it would be as objects placed along the top of a wall: a battery jar, a rusted pulley, shapeless wooden boxes, an open can of axle grease, two lengths of pipe….” Such lines hover midway between the flat quotidian world of breathing and an ultimate act of conciousness, of sheer beholding.
However there is less “epiphany” in the muted passage from Houseboat Days than a form of oblique exploration. Let me try another definition. “We come to know the mind as it is in itself through the study of the ways in which it appears to us. The emphasis here is on putting into words what is commonly and familiarly done without one’s knowing how to describe accurately what one is doing.” These two sentences are a direct paste-up from an encyclopedia definition of “phenomenology.” That ponderous term comes very close to designating Ashbery’s most intimate concern—the twitch and coalescence of mind that extends the moment of appreciation.
But nearly every poem in Houseboat Days shows that Ashbery’s phenomenological eye fixes itself not so much on ordinary living and doing as on the specific act of composing a poem. Writing on Frank O’Hara’s work, Ashbery defined a poem as “the chronicle of the creative act that produces it.” Thus every poem becomes an ars poetica of its own condition. The passage out of “Fantasia on ‘The Nut-Brown Maid”‘ quoted above presents a good example of such a circular poem, recording its own generation. We are reading “The signature of many connected seconds of indecision.” The “timing” that matters so much resides in the movement of the words themselves, the progress our eye could extract “from almost anything.” And the cryptic “it” designates the poem itself, the process we are engaged in. Some of Ashbery’s titles acknowledge his preoccupation: “And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name”; “What Is Poetry”; “The Thief of Poetry.” “Sometimes a word will start it…”one of them begins, and by the end we know that “it” stands for the immediate act of writing.
Poetry has always had a strong tendency toward self-reflexiveness. From Sappho to Scève (a favorite of Ashbery’s) down to the present, the beloved perpetually disappears into the poem-in-progress. Particularly since Valéry and Rilke, the poetic sensibility has usurped alien presences and sits in front of its own camera. Poetry about poetry reminds me of the college teachers who, in the turbulence of the late Sixties and early Seventies, decided that a course need not address itself to a recognized subject matter. Rather the best instruction is heuristic in the sense that it examines its own format and justification. Most of those courses became wandering and narcissistic because the teacher dwelt too long on his doubts about himself and his subject. A comparable preoccupation haunts Ashbery’s poetry and that of many contemporary poets who discredit “acceptance.” Usually their self-reflexive works do not earn back in intensity or melody what they lose in sustained action or feeling. Ashbery’s texts concentrate increasingly on the time that passes in their own composition and reading; the slamming doors and pistol shots do not succeed in breaking that shrinking aesthetic circle.
I find it discouraging to read Ashbery’s poems where this centripetal effect declares itself most strongly. In them the customary justifications of obscurity serve him badly. However, there is a complementary perspective, obtained by a small readjustment of one’s response to the text, that yields a very different effect, closer to delight and what used to be called consolation.
And songs climb out of the flames of the near campfires,
Pale, pastel things exquisite in their frailness
With a note or two to indicate it isn’t lost,
On them at least.
Such images along with the inevitable, unanchored it merely loom and fade unless one begins to see them as drawn on paper, quite literally, like imaginary scenery. Then they hover and wait for us to catch up. Ashbery opens another poem, “The Wrong Kind of Insurance,” with a tantalizing promise of narrative: “I teach in a high school / And see the nurses in some of the hospitals….” But the story line disappears immediately in favor of still-life effects: “All of our lives is a rebus / Of little wooden animals painted shy.” A few lines later we have been transported inside the frame and are asked to look about us attentively at the painted scenery.
Yes, friends, these clouds pulled along on invisible ropes
Are, as you have guessed, merely stage machinery…
The murky atmosphere of a park, tattered
Foliage, wise old treetrunks, rain- bow tissue-paper wadded
Clouds down near where the per- spective
Intersects the sunset….
Despite Ashbery’s many disclaimers, the more I read his work the more I see the theatrical landscapes of certain modern painters. At first it seemed to be de Chirico, from whom Ashbery borrowed the title of his earlier volume The Double Dream of Spring. But lines like “about to meet / One’s double through the chain of cigar smoke,” or “lozenge-shaped openings” in space, when taken as straightforward visual description, lead to one painter and one painter only: Saul Steinberg. In poem after poem Ashbery seems to be composing a detailed ekphrasis of the disciplined wackiness of Steinberg’s art. Somehow that realization simplifies everything; at least it allows me to read Houseboat Days with some enjoyment, unstopped by nagging questions of interpretation and allusion. It turns out that Ashbery himself half certifies this reading. In the Art News Annual for 1970 he published “Saul Steinberg: Callibiography.” With great sympathy the essay explores that artist’s rebus world of rigged geometry and theatricality. In describing Steinberg Ashbery quietly describes himself: “The message of a Steinberg picture is therefore offstage, but for it to exist the stage has to be set.”
Frequently Steinberg both creates and sustains his disparate collection of elements through the agency of a single line—almost as if it carried an electric current. I believe it is possible to read much of Ashbery’s most puzzling work as if it were a direct transposition of the Einsteinbergian universe. He seems to be searching for Steinberg’s amazing gift of cosmic doodling strung on a tenuous penline shown mysteriously drawing itself. The circling, the snow writing, and even the sounds in the section quoted earlier from “Fantasia on ‘The Nut-Brown Maid”‘ have this uncanny quality of something drawn in. In another image from Houseboat Days Ashbery compares a train to a pencil “Guided by a ruler held against a photomural of the Alps.” The thread that holds Ashbery’s diorama precariously in place is the passage of time to which he so often refers—time as it moves by within the frame of the poem itself. “Melodic Trains,” from which the above lines are quoted, resembles an extended, cryptic, narrative cartoon that comes to life vividly in the reading. Yet it soon fades, for it exists in “The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind / Colliding with the lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its desire to communicate / Something between breaths.” These revealing lines come from the close of one of Ashbery’s most successful poems, another ars poetica, which he calls “And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name.” A few lines earlier he wonders, “What to put in your poem-painting.” I find more visual thinking than music in this collection.
In 1865 Baudelaire wrote to a young artist, “Vous n’êtes que le premier dans la décrépitude de votre art.” He sent this bracing semi-compliment to Manet. The sentence misjudges the painting of the era and gives Manet his due. I am tempted to address the same words to Ashbery, knowing they overpraise the poet in this instance, believing they catch our era. For much poetry has allowed its resources to shrink to an island of understated ironic prose and implied intensity. The coffee-house readings of the early Sixties did not rescue the auditory tradition. Yet anyone with his ear to the ground today should know that something is on its way. Annunciatory articles have already appeared by Wendell Berry (The Hudson Review, Spring 1975) and Christopher Clausen (The Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 1978). Poets like Frost and Auden, James Merrill and J.V. Cunningham are attracting new readers, as is Berry himself. It’s high time. Mallarmé’s famous reply to Degas, that poetry is made of words not ideas, is today being raised as a slogan by the semiologists, who flourish on conundrums. But Wallace Stevens filed a better claim to that statement and sent it on in the right direction. “Above everything else, poetry is words,” he reiterates in The Necessary Angel, “and…words, above everything else, are, in poetry, sound.”
Ashbery is too genuine and gifted a poet to force his poetry to wear seven veils—and then refuse to let it dance.
March 23, 1978
“The Nut-Brown Maid” is an anonymous fifteenth-century English ballad on the theme of a woman’s remarkable fidelity to her lover. After a lengthy inquisitorial conversation testing her loyalty, he turns out to be a lord and makes her his lady. A few obvious allusions at the start and a distant formal resemblance do not suffice to make the ballad helpful in reading the “Fantasia.” ↩