Richly Flows Contingency

Flow Chart

by John Ashbery
Knopf, 216 pp., $20.00

Browsing through the recently published Complete Poems of that one-time whiz kid of Soviet poetry, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, I found myself thinking that this is now the sound of poetry for the Soviet public at large. When declaimed it sounds right and natural, the proper noise that a poet should make, just as Tennyson sounded in his own time, or Yeats and Auden in theirs. Without having to use the obvious cliché that this is what it means to be “a major poet,” one could and should say that this is what real achievement in a contemporary poet consists of: he has laid down guidelines and made his mark on the language of the tribe.

John Ashbery is doing that today in America and in the English-speaking world. His early poems and collections—The Tennis Court Oath, Rivers and Mountains—still had the exoticism of new device and a new speech, but his voice today is certainly that of “poetry” as she is now spoke. It is an unemphatic though far from monotonous sound, combining courteously indeterminate distinction with a seeming unawareness of the old idea that poetry should be—as Auden once called it—“memorable speech.” Ashbery in his own way often sounds memorable, yet I should doubt if any of his readers actually carry any sequence of his lines in their memories, or could recall more than a passing phrase. At the same time his lines and sentences have the unusual ability to weave themselves into the reader’s mind, to take over his own silent speech cogitations as a virus takes over and uses the cells of the body. Inside his own head the reader may begin to think and to talk like Ashbery, in the way that a reader fifty or sixty years ago might have been reciting bits of Auden in his head, and taking up for a moment, like Walter Mitty, their appropriate mental stance.

To have sounded, in poetry, the standard tones of the age, is no small feat. Philip Larkin talks in a poem of jazz being, when he was young, “the natural noise of good.” Anything new by Ashbery has become for poetry the natural noise of now. A number of talented poets, for example Steven Vita in America and Mark Ford in England, have begun to sound rather like him, achieving something of the same kind of gripping but unidentifiable monologue. Authoritative and subtly influential as it has become, Ashbery’s natural voice leads us into shopping malls and to visiting the “mottled houseplants” sold to home- makers; to dreaming of a hyena or a great speckled hen and a number of other things that will not last out today, except, perhaps, in the words of this poet, or of others who have come to be like him.

But the sum will get lost anyway
in the crowd, unless drastic measures are taken. And who is to take them?
Because you, walking around comparison-shopping, are its infrastructure
and the only one who…

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