Sign Language

John Ashbery’s new book is a collection of forty-eight poems, most of them fairly short, some as short as one sentence, the title and its completion in two lines. One poem, “Litany,” is very long, several thousand lines, a double poem of two monologues running simultaneously down the pages. How you read it is up to you. The poem is divided into three unequal sections. On a first reading I read the left-hand monologue complete, all three sections, without even adverting to what was happening on the right-hand side of the page. Then the same for that side. On a second reading I switched from left to right at the end of each section. I can’t report much difference. One can read each page as it appears, but that would be perverse, because the sentences rarely end with the page. The two voices are not as fully differentiated as the “He” and “She” of “Fantasia on ‘The Nut-Brown Maid’ ” in Ashbery’s House-boat Days (1977), but the differences are enough to show that B is more ample, more opulent than A, more explicit, more in command of the feelings. A and B are my names, Ashbery doesn’t give the speakers any names or differentiating marks. The two speakers could be one, in different moods or phases, but I choose, not to think so.

A detour, first, otherwise I have no hope of making sense of As We Know. Let us agree, for the sake of such clarity as agreement provides, that a typical poem in one American tradition would be likely to feature a poet, or at least a poetic character, walking alone by the sea and trying to make sense of it. The self, the beach, the sea: constituents adequate to a certain kind of poem, though not to a complete poetry, unless we are content to see poetry discard its civic, social, and political concerns. In any case, think of the poetic character striding there alone, facing out and up to reality in the guise of the sea. Certain possibilities disclose themselves: the poet may, against great odds, find the reality of the sea so satisfying that he is content to apprehend it: or he may find it totally incomprehensible, and turn inland; or he may impose upon it his own vision, mastering it, or feeling that he masters it, answering one fact with a correspondingly imperious fiction, supreme, as Stevens liked to call it. From Emerson’s “Sea-Shore” to Stevens’s “The Idea of Order at Key West” and Ammons’s “Corsons Inlet,” it has been a question of reality and the poetic imagination; the sea and the imagination, which I construe as the mind in the aspect of the freedom it claims.

John Ashbery’s poems belong to this Romantic or post-Romantic tradition, even though his walks are not as marine as Ammons’s. His beaches are more often city streets. No matter: it is the same question of reality and imagination. But the first sign of a poem by…

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