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 Ashbery is the misgiving with which conclusions are broached or approached. Stevens wanted to come to conclusions, and to let them differ from one another, according to his mood. In some of his poems the imagination is baffled; in other poems, baffled for the moment but strong enough to grope toward an integration; and in still other poems, buoyant, triumphant, at least for the place and the time being. But Ashbery’s poems post guards against conclusions. He once remarked, in a passage I quote from David Kalstone’s Five Temperaments (1977):
It seems to me that my poetry sometimes proceeds as though an argument were suddenly derailed and something that started out clearly suddenly becomes opaque. It’s a kind of mimesis of how experience comes to me: as one is listening to someone else—a lecturer, for instance—who’s making perfect sense but suddenly slides into something that eludes one. What I am probably trying to do is to illustrate opacity and how it can suddenly descend over us, rather than trying to be wilfully obscure.
Charming, and accurate enough, except that opacity is not the way Ashbery’s poems have of being difficult. If opacity means something that is hostile to the transit of light, something defeating the swift translation of words into sense, his poems are not opaque or even obscure. They are serpentine, they allow us to follow them but not to know where precisely we are going, or why. In “Clepsydra,” a poem from Rivers and Mountains (1966), Ashbery gives the formula we need, referring to
Gesture which hides the truth behind a congruent
Message, the way air hides the sky….
This explains Ashbery’s attitude to congruent messages, otherwise known as conclusions. He doesn’t mind producing them, so long as the reader knows that they do not make the truth visible.
In “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” Stevens writes of revery:
Compact in invincible foils, from reason,
Lighted at midnight by the studious eye,
Swaddled in revery, the object of
The hum of thoughts evaded in the mind,
Hidden from other thoughts….
That seems close to Ashbery’s own thoughts: if you are shy about congruent messages, and feel at home only in the misgiving with which you entertain them, you are likely to feel that something as definite as a thought is bogus, or at best premature. One of the speakers in “Litany” speaks of
too much direction,
Too many coils
Of remembrance, too much arbitra- tion.
And the other one reports, in a similar mood:
The intimate light of the lantern
One really felt rather than saw
The thin, terrifying edges between things
And their terrible cold breath.
And no one longed for the great generalities
These seemed to preclude.
In Ashbery’s poems, what we feel is the hum of thoughts evaded in the mind, great generalities pressing to be heard and, in the event, being eluded.
Hence his procedure: “chronic reverie.” Not day-dreaming, but mind concentrated upon everything that defeats the logic of premise and conclusion. Ashbery is always willing to see “the evidence of the visual” replaced by “the great shadow of trees falling over life,” because shadows have for him the same status as substances, variations the same status as themes. He likes to take his theme to Land’s End, and if at that point it is barely visible: no matter. He does not “line phrases with the costly stuff of explanation.”
His long poems are like letters to an intimate friend or lover, permitting the usual mixture of news and inconsequence, relying upon the friend’s good will, knowing that, within reason and cadence, nearly anything goes. He wants “the kind of rhythm that substitutes for ‘meaning.’ ” Or, as I would say, the kind of rhythm that evades “meaning.” So his relation to things and messages offering themselves as congruent is that of a voluntary exile; he chooses to live in another country. The haven of citizenship is premature. Owing so much to Stevens, Ashbery settles his debts without aspiring to anything as grand as a supreme fiction: that, too, must be evaded.
Ashbery’s poems turn and twist upon the question of self and the conditions it has to face. Mostly, they trace an elaborate and endlessly inventive circuit of consciousness as it tries to establish itself, working toward its proper tone. Sometimes, for pure relief, he takes pleasure in the otherness of things, “this otherness, this not-being-us” as he calls it in “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” but more generally he approaches the forms of his experience as temptations, and regards their otherness as temptation in its most refined form. Among the available attitudes, he leans toward those that are suspicious of themselves and alive to the tempting positions they eventually disown. So his nouns often denote possible commitments he is not quite prepared to make. The truth is something else, it rarely coincides with the signs that offer to indicate it: it is neither this nor that, though it includes something of both. In “Self-Portrait” he writes of
Your gesture which is neither em- brace nor warning
But which holds something of both in pure
Affirmation that doesn’t affirm anything.
But the problem is: how much can you disavow before you lose even the desire to avow? There is an unforgettable passage in “Self-Portrait” which begins with an acknowledgment that “the soul establishes itself.” But immediately, as if the sentence were enough to draw suspicion upon it, the soul is put in question. How far can it swim out through the eyes and still return safely to its nest? Within a line or two the soul is discovered as a captive, and soon it is feared
that the soul is not a soul,
Has no secret, is small, and it fits
Its hollow perfectly: its room, our moment of attention.
True, Ashbery is glossing a Renaissance painting, Parmigianino’s self-portrait painted on a hemisphere of wood in imitation of his reflection in a mirror. But the passage goes far beyond Parmigianino, and brings one stage further the rhetoric of evasion I have been describing. Still, the risk is measurable.
It ceases to be measurable, however, when it threatens to suppress or neutralize the poet’s own voice. Most poets who take on the sundry of experience have an interest in modifying the privilege of one part of an experience over another: they don’t want to endow with special aura any particular images or symbols. But they make an exception in favor of their own voices. With this privilege, you can do nearly anything: the reader is willing to go along with a dominant voice wherever it leads him. Ashbery is remarkable in treating his own voice with the same suspicion he directs upon other things. Taking every precaution against sounding like Stevens, he goes further and avoids sounding like himself. The fact that he does not succeed makes it wonderful that he should even try.
If you think that Ashbery’s voice is not vigorous enough to make its suppression a problem, read “The Skaters” and “Self-Portrait” again, and listen to a voice that could not be denied.
It is best to remain indoors. Because there is error
In so much precision. As flames are fanned, wishful thinking arises
Bearing its own prophets, its pointed ignoring.
And just as a desire
Settles down at the end of a long spring day, over heather
and watered shoot and dried rush field,
So error is plaited into desires not yet born.
But generally Ashbery apparently believes that his aesthetic of evasion requires him to include his own voice among the propositions, ideas, thoughts, and other congruent messages he must circumvent. In the short poems of As We Know the voice we hear is what Ashbery could not entirely withhold. In this he is the most un-Yeatsian of poets.
Yet he is a stylist, one of the best. But the style he seeks and, with increasing flair since Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror and Houseboat Days, finds is a flexible style in which he can negotiate everything on his own terms: no privileges are offered. There is a nice description of this style in Ashbery’s introduction to The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara (1971): “…a bag into which anything is dumped and ends up belonging there.” Or it is a style consistent with the equable hospitality ascribed to the mind in Houseboat Days:
Is so hospitable, taking in everything
What Ashbery asks of his style is that it keep him in the space of his themes and, if necessary, let him escape their importunity; going back into style again. In Three Poems (1972) he describes, not at all ruefully, a situation in which “the life has gone out of our acts and into the attitudes.” Normally, attitudes are preparations for acts, but in some cases, as Kenneth Burke has pointed out, they are substitutes for the corresponding acts. In Ashbery’s poems the recession from acts to attitudes is seen as having its uses because it provides “an open field of narrative possibilities” instead of a single story he is no longer disposed to endow with authority. So his long poems do not tell stories as privileged interpretations of what happened; they make spaces to move around in, “which is all that matters.”
Ashbery’s sense of poetry, it follows, cannot be too severe in what it demands of the poet. In “Self-Portrait,” charmed to remark that in French the word for weather is the word for time, Ashbery allows the reader to think that poetry is weather in following a course “wherein changes are merely features of the whole.” The whole
is stable within
Instability, a globe like ours, resting
On a pedestal of vacuum, a ping- pong ball
Secure on its jet of water.
Presumably the mind, too, is weather, its veerings and derailings into opacity merely features of the whole. The analogy is common to Ashbery and to Stevens, as in “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” where “the self, the town, the weather, in a casual litter” together say that “words of the world are the life of the world.” Stevens’s conclusion is more resolute than anything in Ashbery, who has always wanted to stop short of defining in any terms the life of the world. It is enough for him that poetry, like weather, includes all sorts of vagary without refuting the whole nature of weather.
Style, then, is a way of keeping going in all sorts of weather: but what does it look like on the page, or sound like in those held breaths and withheld voices? On the page it looks trim enough, in the voice or voices it sounds like talk; not talk that draws attention to the speaker, but talk as such, to be attended to mainly for its continuity. Ashbery’s long poems keep the talk going until it threatens to denote a resting place, a conviction, a thought as distinct from the mind thinking, and then they circumvent the impulse, diverting it to convey the diffidence their poet feels about such grandeurs. “No sighs like Russian music.” Talk, in Ashbery’s poetry, denotes not a reference but a need to speak: such stability as he wants is embodied in the circuit of talk and does not luxuriate in the brilliance of any particular aperçu. As in “Litany”
The talk leads nowhere but is
Inside its space.
A long poem is simply a big space, congenially occupied. But of course it fends off other spaces over which the poet has otherwise no control. Within the space of the poem, Ashbery can set his own ostensibly casual decorum in which monsters, like hijackers, are talked down, diverted, or appeased. Ductility is Ashbery’s word for this decorum in “Litany,” though he has in mind the relation between writing and imagination; it corresponds to the ingenuity of a talker who keeps going lest some terrible fact, temporarily sequestered, invade his space.
As We Know is a difficult book, but not obscure as, say, The Tennis Court Oath was obscure. Ashbery has sometimes believed that poetry should be able to do whatever painting can do; forgetting that a painting does not talk at all. He has also believed, at times, that the painter’s freedom can be achieved in poetry by somewhat Surrealist means. None of these beliefs inhabits As We Know, and therefore its difficulty is of another kind. Neither of the monologues in “Litany” is difficult, only the relation between them. And in the relatively short poems the reader’s mind is often puzzled but rarely brought to a standstill: lucidities come quickly and regularly enough to keep him in a buoyant state, his spirits well kept up. But it would be absurd to maintain that reading As We Know is plain sailing, or that the joy of its intermittent gorgeousnesses (“And imagine radiant blue flamingoes against the sacred sky”) is enough to keep you going for the rest of a page.
The difficulties are not in local meaning, but in knowing or even sensing how one such meaning bears upon the next. I am reminded of William Empson’s account of one of his seven types of ambiguity, which occurs “when a statement says nothing, by tautology, by contradiction, or by irrelevant statements, so that the reader is forced to invent statements of his own and they are liable to conflict with one another.” The statements you invent for such poems as “Otherwise” and “There’s No Difference” provide the contexts: in these poems the lines predicate a situation, but no particular situation is indicated, so we are forced into guesswork until we realize that a context, precisely established, would force the poem to be at home in it; and this is yet another fixed reference that Ashbery evades.
Still, the poems belong to an apparently human situation which we divine mostly by following the maneuverings of “I” and “You.” These terms are not as reliable as their grammar, we must be prepared to see them fade out of sight and return as ghosts or shadows, but they give us points of reference, a body of feelings we care about, if not quite a definition. Fixity would be, on the reader’s part, a gaucherie equivalent to insistence. Ashbery’s time is “a present that is elsewhere,” so there is no point in forcing his poems into a present that we insist upon fixing here.
Stevens says in The Necessary Angel that “modern reality is a reality of decreation, in which our revelations are not the revelations of belief, but the precious portents of our own powers.” Finding the idea of decreation in Simone Weil’s La Pesanteur et la Grace, he noted “that decreation is making pass from the created to the uncreated, but that destruction is making pass from the created to nothingness.” In Ashbery’s version:
We must first trick the idea
Into being, then dismantle it,
Scattering the pieces on the wind.
We must do this, apparently, because we are conscientious, skeptical of our native rhetoric.
Often in As We Know we come upon poems in which the weather is so changeable that we can barely recognize the season; and yet the style is so convincing that our assent runs ahead of the demand the poem makes for it. As in “Many Wagons Ago”:
At first it was as though you had passed,
But then no, I said, he is still here,
Forehead refreshed. A light is kindled. And
Another. But no I said
Nothing in this wide berth of lights like weeds
Stays to listen. Doubled up, fun is inside,
The lair a surface compact with the night.
It needs only one intervention,
A stitch, two, three, and then you see
How it is all false equation planted with
Enchanting blue shrubbery on each terrace
That night produces, and they are backing up.
How easily we could spell if we could follow,
Like thread looped through the eye of a needle,
The grooves of light. It resists. But we stay behind, among them,
The injured, the adored.
I am not sure I understand the title, even with the help of “passed” in the first line. Two lovers, the injured one speaks, the adored one is not reported as even listening. The strongest gesture of the poem is the correction of an entertained hope (“But no I said”). “Forehead refreshed” is the sign of a relation seen with the thrill of hope; only to have its illumination quenched. Several senses conspired to report this disenchantment: “nothing…wide berth of lights…weeds…stays to listen.” Presumably the lover’s desire finds its history epitomized in passing from “fun” to “lair.”
I take the poem to be about the difficulty of spelling, of reading the signs that pass between people, even when we are given bright letters to read, bright lights to negotiate. The equation, the sense we make of the evidence, is false because premature. You don’t see this until you start stitching the pieces together. What I find touching in the poem is the evidence of easy conclusions entertained only to be set aside, relegated to the enchanting blue shrubbery; as, in the last stanza, two unusually opulent flourishes are sobered by the steadying force of “It resists.” This force removes any suspicion we may have entertained that Ashbery is the Prufrock of American poetry (“It is impossible to say just what I mean!”) or that he takes his feelings so seriously that he doesn’t risk expressing them. Not so: his feelings do not sink to rest upon commonplaces of certitude and conviction, but that is their distinction.
January 24, 1980