The figures traced in John Ashbery’s rich new book have to do with death: in fact, A Wave has qualities of a last testament. The Angel of Death opens the book, appearing in a poem at once so ordinary and so literary that we read it with a pure transparency of understanding:
Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents, through narrow passes.
But will he know where to find you,
Recognize you when he sees you,
Give you the thing he has for you?
Hardly anything grows here,
Yet the granaries are bursting with meal,
The sacks of meal piled to the rafters.
The streams run with sweetness, fattening fish;
Birds darken the sky. Is it enough
That the dish of milk is set out at night,
That we think of him sometimes,
Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings?
(“At North Farm”)
We register at first the clichés, as we read “incredible speed,” “desert heat,” “narrow passes,” “granaries…bursting,” and “mixed feelings.” These trip so easily on the tongue that we understand this drama to be something “everyone knows”: and yet at the same time the paradoxes of drought and abundance, sweetness and menace, dread and longing, warn us that this is an almost unimaginable state of affairs. Someone travels furiously toward you (with all the determination of the Post Office)—but will he—and here the poem takes its cue from the catchiness of popular lyric, “know where to find you…when to see you…give you the thing he has for you?”
No pleasure is sweeter in the ear than something new done to the old. Ashbery’s deep literary dependencies escape cliché by the pure Americanness of his diction. A middle-aged American reads “Hardly anything grows here” with immediate recognition, a shock not possible any longer from the mention in a contemporary poem of “stubble plains” or “the barrenness/Of the fertile thing that can attain no more”—words used so memorably that they cannot be reused. Ashbery’s gift for American plainness is his strongest weapon: “Hardly anything grows here” disarms us in its naked truth.
At the same time, in barren middle age one has seen too much; there is more experience than one can ever consume in recollection or perpetuate in art—the granaries are bursting with meal. That too, while Keatsian, is American in its “bursting with meal” (in Keats, what bursts are clouds, in tears). Ashbery’s propitiatory dish of milk for the goblin (to keep him outside the house) is just unexpected enough, as folk naiveté, to throw us off balance (in this Keatsian, Stevensian context); it gives us death through the lens of the literary grotesque instead of through the lens of tragicomic fate (traveling furiously) or the lens of seasonal turn (vegetative barrenness, harvest plenty). Will it keep Death out of the house if we set milk out for him? (Milton: “The drudging Goblin sweat,/To earn his cream-bowl duly set.”) Will it mollify the Goblin if we don’t think badly of him? And yet, isn’t there as well a hope that he will come and stop for us and give us what he has for us—the death notice, perhaps, in his hand? Emily Dickinson, whose air of macabre comedy often resembles Ashbery’s, would have read this poem with perfect comprehension.
A few pages later, Ashbery tells the “same” story over again, staged this time at the moment of receiving the death notice. Sick and shaken, one hears the bad news about one’s future:
It was as though I’d been left with the empty street
A few seconds after the bus pulled out. A dollop of afternoon wind.
Others tell you to take your attention off it
For awhile, refocus the picture. Plan to entertain,
To get out. (Do people really talk that way?)
The awful thing is that people really do talk that way. To see the very coin of our conversation exposed in the palm of the poem is horrible, but mesmerizing.
Yet once again, Ashbery tells the “same” story. This time he enters it as he realizes the terrible shortness of time, and begins to count the beads of the past:
…Each is a base one might wish to touch once more
Before dying. There’s the moment years ago in the station in Venice,
The dark rainy afternoon in fourth grade, and the shoes then,
Made of a dull crinkled brown leather that no longer exists.
And nothing does, until you name it, remembering….
But there is no leisure to remember those Wordsworthian spots of time:
…the wrecking ball bursts through the wall with the bookshelves
Scattering the works of famous authors as well as those
Of more obscure ones, and books with no author….
Ashbery does death justice: old structures die so that new structures of language may come into being. The wrecking ball lets in “Space, and an extraneous babble from the street/Confirming the new value the hollow core has again.” The hollow core, the possibility of signification itself, is made by artists into a cultural construct (here, a library); the wrecking ball lets in a new influx of demotic speech, and a new generation will construct the library all over again around that perpetual hollow core. If Ashbery’s poetry is made possible only by the wreckage of Romanticism and Modernism, then his own death and wreckage will empower a new poetry issuing from consciousness, “the light/From the light-house that protects as it pushes us away.” The potential for culture is protected; the individual is cleared away. (I am translating Ashbery’s delicacy into crudity, his narrative into observation.)
And again, Ashbery tells the story, insisting, by his manner, that everything said “in English” has to be written over “in American.” If Keats’s sonnet reads,
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high-piléd books in charact’ry,
Hold like rich garners the full- ripen’d grain;
then Ashbery will write,
I think a lot about it,
Think quite a lot about it—
The omnipresent possibility of being interrupted
While what I stand for is still almost a bare canvas:
A few traceries, that may be fibers, perhaps
Not even these but shadows, hallucinations….
(Keats: “And think that I may never live to trace/Their shadows”; Ashbery: “traceries…shadows.”) Ashbery does not hide his sources, but he does not replicate them, either. The “educated” reader thinks that “poetry” must sound Keatsian, rhythmic, and noble. But our American language cannot speak in those “noble accents/And lucid inescapable rhythms” (Stevens) without modification. “I think a lot about it” is how we now say “When I have fears.” And Ashbery expertly winds up his sentence from that flat American beginning, first into American cliché (“omnipresent possibility,” “what I stand for”) and then into Stevensian qualification (“almost,” “may be,” “perhaps,” “not even these but”), finishing with the hallowed words for art: “canvas,” “traceries,” “fibers,” “shadows,” “hallucinations.”
Ashbery retells both death and life with American comic pragmatism and deadpan pratfalls:
The first year was like icing.
Then the cake started to show through.
(“More Pleasant Adventures”)
Reading Ashbery, one notices the idiom: when, exactly, did “show through” come into common speech in this sense? and “started,” too, for that matter? The poem ends with the remark, “And paintings are one thing we never seem to run out of”: when did “to run out of something” become our normal way of saying that the supply was exhausted? “What need for purists,” says Ashbery, “when the demotic is built to last,/To outlast us?” His campaign (of course, not only his) to write down the matter of lyric in the idiom of America is a principled one. His eclectic borrowing from many past styles—an aesthetic some would like to call postmodern—creates a “variegated, polluted skyscraper to which all gazes are drawn,” the style of our century, to which we are both condemned and entrusted, a “pleasure we cannot and will not escape.”
I have been writing, up to now, about the first seventeen pages of Ashbery’s book, simply to give the sense of a reader’s first assenting page-turning. It is scarcely to the point, as we turn the pages, to ask what Ashbery “thinks about death.” Of course he thinks the things anyone could, and many have, thought about it. The aesthetic interest is how he makes it new. The duty and pleasure of art is to invent a thousand and one ways of telling the same story (or painting the same Crucifixion, or varying “Non piu andrai“). Nobody wants a new lyric subject. We want the old subjects done over.
Ashbery’s genius for a free and accurate American rendition of very elusive inner feelings, and especially for transitive states between feelings, satisfies our baffled search for intelligibility of experience. Here is Ashbery on the apprehensiveness of dying:
The parachute won’t land, only drift sideways.
The carnival never ends; the apples,
The land, are duly tucked away
And we are left with only sensations of ourselves
And the dry otherness, like a clenched fist
Around the throttle as we go down, sideways and down.
There are other dazzling endings here. Each of us, says Ashbery, advances into his own labyrinth,
Filling the road up with colors, faces,
Tender speeches, until they feed us to the truth.
An icy hand grips the reader’s wrist. There is a moment of flurried protest—“No, now that’s just a metaphor, I mean nobody is going to feed me to—feed me?—they? who?—feed?”—but the fluster freezes into the shock and glare of undeniability. The horrors of life and death have rarely been conveyed in a more dispassionately comic tone.
Ashbery’s corrections in the typescript that I read before the book arrived are invariably in the direction of more Americanness of diction. He crosses out foreign words, Anglicisms, and stately formulations (the latter not an easy sacrifice if, like Ashbery, you have learned your syntax from James and Proust). Ashbery has taken his Americanness in part from Gertrude Stein, who turns up in various agreeable echoes:
…What kind is it, is there more than one
Kind, are people forever going to be at the edge
Of things, even the nice ones, and when it happens
Will we all be alone together?…
There is a happy inconsequence of phrasing here that Ashbery aims for when he generalizes about life. He deletes passages that smack too much of the preacher. In one such instance of revision, Eliot’s shadow falls and is expunged:
Save us from the revealed meaning
And revealing the meaning:
Somewhere in between
You shall find it not all bad
And the questioning meaning may grow again.
(deleted from “Destiny Waltz”)
Or, as Ashbery puts it in one of his one-line haiku, “You have original art works hanging on the walls oh I said edit.” No contemporary poet can have Eliot hanging, too evidently there, on his walls. Ashbery is vigorous but selective in his editing, and one of the rewards of being his reader, as I have said, is to see the glints of his assimilated sources shining on the page.
Ashbery’s poems often reflect on the process of being Ashbery’s reader as he transforms days into poems.
Each day seems full of itself, and yet it is only
A few colored beans and some straw lying on a dirt floor
In a mote-filled shaft of light. There was room. Yes,
And you have created it by going away. Somewhere, someone
Listens for your laugh, swallows it like a drink of cool water,
Neither happy nor aghast. And the stance, that post standing there, is you.
Readers have listened for Ashbery’s laugh, have swallowed it like a drink of cool water (Bishop, “The Man-Moth”: “Cool as from underground springs and pure enough to drink”). In the aesthetic moment (by contrast to the poet’s moment of “experience”) we are neither happy nor aghast. The poet’s own apologia to us is characteristically comic, dealing in sly paradoxes, and yet bleakly true:
…I shall sit on your doorstep
Till you notice me. I’m still too young
To be overlooked, yet not old enough to qualify
For full attention. I’ll flesh out
The thin warp of your dreams, make them meatier,
Nuttier. And when a thin pall gathers
Leading finally to outraged inves- tigation
Into what matters next, I’ll be there
On the other side.
Art, for Ashbery as for Keats, is meat and drink, plumping the hazel shell with a sweet kernel. And art is company: feeling with outrage our own mortality (what happens next and what matters most—in Ashbery’s portmanteau version “what matters next”), we turn to the poets who have felt the shock before us, and find them there on the other side. On the other hand, nobody stares truth, or art, in the face for long: psychic denial revises mortality, makes it recede, and disingenuously “speaks no longer/Of loss, but of brevity rather: short naps, keeping fit.” The scorpion sting of that satiric close leaves its accusatory poison within us.
In this excellent collection there are things readers will be of two minds about. There is a long literary piece called “Description of a Masque” which invokes, for my taste, too many in-jokes. There are some attempts in the demotic (“The Songs We Know Best”) that seem to me uneasy in their use of slang. On the other hand, these pieces are only exaggerations (whether on the literary side or the populist side) of Ashbery’s search for a renewed idiom. His rewriting of haiku into one line, and his several prose poems called “Haibun” (the poetic prose written by a haiku poet), suggest a restless investigation of form.
Ashbery’s major piece in this book, giving its title to the collection, is the long poem (over six hundred lines long) “A Wave,” which as I read it is Ashbery’s Prelude. A Wordsworthian poem of Whitmanesque lines, it ranges from childhood to death, and describes, in the largest sense, the vie poétique.
…By so many systems
As we are involved in, by just so many
Are we set free on an ocean of language that comes to be
Part of us, as though we would ever get away.
The sky is bright and very wide, and the waves talk to us,
Preparing dreams we’ll have to live with and use….
We will all have to walk back this way
A second time, and not to know it then, not
To number each straggling piece of sagebrush
Is to sleep before evening, and well into the night
That always coaxes us out, smoothes out our troubles and puts us back to bed again.
There seems to be a general belief among readers that to write about “poetry” is somehow not to write about “life.” But “poetry” is the construction by consciousness of an apprehensible world. Every person constructs such a world, and lives in it. When the poets write about poesis, they are writing about what is done every day by everyone. Most of us do not reflect on it as we do it, but we live nonetheless in our construct of the world. Because the poet writes his constructions down, he cannot be unconscious of them: he must reflect on their structures, their idiom. In recording and enacting the process by which we come to consciousness, form an identity, see our selfhood shadowed and illuminated by circumstance, and finally bid farewell to illusions of immortality, Ashbery reveals the nature of personal life in our era. To say that a poem is “about poetry” means, surely, that it is consciously about the way life makes up a world of meaning.
The poets do not write about poesis as a process exclusive to themselves. The arrangements of memory, the articulations of the dreams of the ego, the inventions of culture, are poesis. If we do not understand ourselves as self-constructing animals, we mistake the source of authority, projecting it onto external fictions. The poets, by describing their act of self-making, call us to witness our own processes of soul-making. A Wave, the account of a contemporary American life from childhood to death, self-composed, calls us to see our own self-composing in it.
Of course A Wave will eventually receive long commentaries, and I can give here only the briefest idea of its scope. It issues from “the dungeon of Better Living” and speaks in an imminently menaced environment (“Headhunters and jackals mingle with the viburnum/And holly-hocks outside”). It is Wordsworthian in its belief that “memory contains everything” and that an immense amount of discourse is needed to describe the sensations of life. The task of consciousness goes on, schooling the intelligence into a soul. Only a few (Arnold’s “saving remnant”) undertake this task with full wakefulness; they will live to see their work carried off in the impersonal wave of death:
So always there is a small remnant
Whose lives are congruent with their souls
And who ever afterward know no mystery in it,
The cimmerian moment in which all lives, all destinies
And incompleted destinies were swamped
As though by a giant wave that picks itself up
Out of a calm sea and retreats again into nowhere
Once its damage is done.
Throughout A Wave, the joyous interplay of experience and memory, memory and expression, is played out in the shadow of death. The poet questions whether it is worth writing his preludes in the light of extinction:
To be always articulating these preludes, there seems to be no
Sense in it, if it is going to be perpetually five o’clock
With the colors of the bricks seeping more and more bloodlike through the tan
Of trees, and then only to blacken.
But the effort to recognize consciousness, and to give a musical expression to consciousness, is rewarded by the fullness and amplitude of the examined and constructed life. At the moment of execution,
…When they finally come
With much laborious jangling of keys to unlock your cell
You can tell them yourself what it is,
Who you are, and how you happened to turn out this way,
And how they made you, for better or for worse, what you are now,
And how you seem to be, neither humble nor proud, frei aber einsam.
“Free but lonely”: Ashbery writes here, with irony, the epitaph for all the solitaries who have freely made their own souls, and know the souls they have made. The charm of Ashbery’s urbane style—so various, so beautiful, so new—persists throughout this long poem, and will induce the rereadings the poem demands. It is a style that resists, in its glowing reflectiveness, the approaching darkness of the cimmerian moment.
June 14, 1984