Wallace Stevens wrote of the need to “confect / the final elegance.” The phrase seems unusually appropriate for the work of John Ashbery and Thom Gunn, but it also shifts and turns as we apply it to them. These poets were elegant from the very beginning of their careers, their elegance never anything but “final.” In another sense, it is not final even now, some dozen volumes of verses since they started—to be precise, fifteen for Ashbery, ten for Gunn. Neither the books nor the poems are shut off from the raggedness of experience, their elegance has room for the provisional, the derelict, the unmanageable: for “trash and understanding,” as Ashbery put it in Flow Chart (1991).
“Confect” too has interesting echoes here: stripped of any negative connotation, as indeed it is in Stevens, it nevertheless recalls the act of making a poem, of finding the ingredients and putting them together. Ashbery and Gunn leave us in no doubt that a poem is a fiction, the product of skilled labor; a piece of the world shaped and angled into words on a piece of paper. “Still in the published city” are Flow Chart’s first words, and in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), Ashbery evokes the temptation “not to include this page / In the fragment of our lives….” In Passages of Joy (1982), Gunn evokes “the excellent room / where I slept, ate, read, and wrote….”
The poets are otherwise not much alike, except in their distinction and age (Ashbery, born 1927; Gunn, born 1929). They share a language and, in an intricate sense, a history; a language which is a history. And both have sought, in different ways, to bring poetry to bear on difficult and elusive contemporary conditions: loss, displacement, affection, loyalty, bewilderment, abrupt and brutal death. Ashbery favors free verse, flowing lines, clear syntax, parody, wordplay, occasional prose poems, an irony that curls around everything like a question mark. Gunn prefers rhyme, traditional meters, austere beauties, pathos, the play of modern topics against ancient forms. One can imagine them in dialogue, though: the Francophile American, for whom England is a whimsical novel, littered about his poems like a paper chase, while America is a mystery, a letter that never arrives; the expatriate Englishman, for whom America is a place of risk and style, damage and death, for whom England seems more and more to be only a cramped and ancient cage.
There is a whole history of poetry in English to be heard in Ashbery’s work. It is a haunted house, “using what Wyatt and Surrey left around,” as he puts it with deceptive American nonchalance. We can hear whispers and parodies of Shakespeare, Whitman, Gray’s “Elegy,” The Waste Land, Stevens, hints of Auden, dozens of other poets. As in: “The snakes and ladders / of outrageous fortune” or “more shitted against than shitting,” or “I could be wrong, I have been in the past, and about more things / than you, Horatio.” There is: “I hear America snowing,” and even more grandly:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its fragrance on the arctic air
outside the Shady Octopus saloon, and then some.
Ashbery also adopts a more diffuse form of parody, where the models can’t be immediately identified, and perhaps don’t exist, except as the generic voice of a moment or manner in earlier poetry. “The posthorn striates the morning gloom”; “forgive us / our stitch of frivolity in the fabric of eternity”; “Don’t fix it if it works, tinker not with that which runs apace.” As these examples suggest, the tone of these allusions is far from that of a solemn adherent to a great tradition, a poet daunted by the lateness that so interests Harold Bloom; more like that of a brilliant and naughty child in an attic full of toys. Or an inquisitive adult in a bazaar crowded with beautiful, battered, and improbable objects.
Ashbery likes the idea of “things too tiny to be remembered in recorded history” and he treats words and images as if they were just such things: funny, treasurable, easily missed. He wants us to be interested in “decrepit cinemas / whose balconies were walled off decades ago,” to hear the half-rhyme, the reminder of time leaking away, in the words “damp” and “dump.” We get much the same feeling from the fragmentary narratives that keep surfacing in Ashbery’s poetry. He regularly takes us off into what seem to be old novels, slightly silly, often about groups of children or explorers or settlers, or ready-mades from the world of romance. “The castle was infested with rats”; “Somewhere, from deep in the interior of the jungle, a groan was heard”; “During the past few months, Biff had become quite a frequent visitor to Carol’s apartment”; “Honeybunch had never seen / so many distasteful lives intertwined, and Mary Ellen hadn’t either.”
Everything in such a world is a cliché, but the clichés are kindly treated, as if they were furniture we have had for a long time, and can’t bear to part with. Ashbery begins what seems to be a Canadian nature poem with a Chinese accent (“Leading liot act to foriage is activity / Of Chinese philosopher here on Autumn Lake thoughtfully inserted in / Plovince of Quebec,” then tells himself to “stop it!” Once he asks, “Do people really talk that way?”; and sometimes he allows himself a little bemusement, or the underlining of an idiom; “Anyway it / had tested our mettle, whatever that is”; “‘Other things to worry about’—he keeps repeating that phrase / as though it were an escutcheon on a portcullis.” But most of the time Ashbery just does the voices, lets the people speak—they do talk that way. They say “rueing the day,” “alive and well,” and “by no means negligible”; they want “a little light on the subject,” make “snap judgments,” think there is “hell to pay” and “you always get a few.” They cry out “Good grief” and “that’s the ticket.”
It’s important to realize this writing is not satire, the poet is not setting himself apart from or looking away from these idioms. He is amused by them, thinks they are stodgy, ridiculous, pompous; but they are what we have, and they are like our lives. The prevailing sense in Ashbery’s poems is of small, survivable disasters, of great moments missed in just the way our repetitive, comic language fails to do justice to our dreams of grandeur. It’s not that “we had the experience but missed the meaning,” as Eliot says in “The Dry Salvages.” In Ashbery’s world we miss the experience and the meaning (“it will always be as though we had never happened”) but get the disorganized riches of the inconsequential world instead: and therefore some sort of experience and meaning after all, if hardly ever the ones we were looking for or thought we had:
leaving behind a feeling that something happened there once,
like wind tearing at the current, but no memory and no crying either….
There was no one to tell us what it meant
when it meant what it did
The strewn evidence meant some- thing,
The small accidents and pleasures
Of the day as it moves gracelessly on
The juxtaposition of pleasures and gracelessness is characteristic, part of Ashbery’s understanding that “banality” could be “our/most precious possession”; elegance is not simply given, it is found among the rubble and the disappointment. “It hurts, this wanting to give a dimension / To life, when life is precisely that dimension.”
Apart from his affectionate assembly of clichés, the chief instruments of Ashbery’s vision are a habit of wordplay borrowed from Raymond Roussel; and a battery of images that look like a late blooming of Surrealism, but are probably closer in spirit to the work of Surrealism’s youthful grandfather, Arthur Rimbaud. The wordplay is often a matter of slight soundshifts, as if all words had echoes or shadows, couldn’t fend off the words that resemble them, and the poem had to follow, in case the echo was the meaning. Thus we read of car/cur, scars/stars, mirage/menage, wells/walls, wash/wish, time/tome, trials/trails, eclectic/hectic, plovers/lovers, repetition/reputation, and much more in the same vein/vane/vain. The images recalling Rimbaud have a shock value but also an eerie comic ring, as if Rimbaud had exchanged his fierce rebellion for amusement at the world’s insanity. “To one corner / a harpsichord is shelling peas”; “the bayoneted clock recovers”; “Isn’t that your son’s tibia in the pilaf?”; “Other vanished/zinnias were interviewed”; “One hears the sheeted dead / braying in a box of pencils”; “Peace lay in sections / On the raised edge of a circus ring.”
Parody, clichés, wordplay, startling images; this is already a mixed bag, and it sounds more violent and bumpy than Ashbery’s work is in anyone’s first (or fifth or sixth) impression of it. As John Bayley suggested,* it’s hard to remember pieces of Ashbery poems. Their immediate effect is of an alarming, ebbing smoothness, a conversation which is always intelligent and agreeable, but also forgettable, as if there were no place for the mind to land or stay, no sense of a sustained direction or unfragmented story. There is no sustained direction or unfragmented story, the very idea violates Ashbery’s sense of the world. “Things aren’t supposed to happen according / to plan,” as he says.
The final elegance is to know this and live with it. But there is another reason for the effect, an actual disguise of all the real turbulence the poems contain. Games and images are embedded in a sentence structure which is always regular, even formal; as if Rimbaud or Roussel had somehow been persuaded to give a commencement address; as if syntax at least were somehow immune to all the raids and depredations of modernity. Things fall apart, but not sentences. There is a resemblance here to the formal elegance with which Gunn keeps a potentially menacing world at bay and under control.
Ashbery’s writing is probably at its best in his longer poems, from “The Skaters” (in Rivers and Mountains, 1966) through “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (in the volume of that title) to the book-length poem Flow Chart. These works give him the space to look as if he is meandering when he is not, time to build up a quirky world out of apparent digressions, and to arrive at the end of a vision. Parmigiano’s self-portrait, for instance, allowing Ashbery to map his own, and to know where knowledge fails:
We have seen the city; it is the gibbous
Mirrored eye of an insect. All things happen
On its balcony and are resumed within,
But the action is the cold, syrupy flow
Of a pageant. One feels too con- fined,
Sifting the April sunlight for clues,
In the mere stillness of the case of its
Parameter. The hand holds no chalk
And each part of the whole falls off
And cannot know it knew, except
Here and there, in cold pockets
Of remembrance, whispers out of time.
But there are remarkable shorter poems too, like the early “Leaving the Atocha Station” (in The Tennis Court Oath, 1962), and a number of pieces in Self-Portrait—particularly “As You Came from the Holy Land” and “The One Thing That Can Save America.” A modern profusion, a pleasure in the heer disorder of the world, gives way an eerie sense of threat, as if the final elegance was always that of death.
As you came from the holy land
of western New York state
were the graves all right in their bushings
was there a note of panic in the late August air
because the old man had peed in his pants again
was there turning away from the late afternoon glare
as though it too could be wished away.
It is the lumps and trial
That tell us whether we shall be known
And whether our fate can be ex- emplary, like a star.
There was much good work after Self-Portrait, but also, until Flow Chart, a sense that the elegance had become a little familiar, too easy to put on, Ashbery’s expert imitations of bumbling or preciosity began to look like the things themselves: “Not something so very strange: but then seeming ordinary / Is strange too”; “The staircase swept upward / through fragmented garlands, keeping the melancholy / Already distilled in letters of the alphabet.” Flow Chart has a few such lines, but can accommodate them in the richness of its voices and preoccupations, in the happiness of the peace it makes with prolixity. Hotel Lautréamont has no long poem—the title piece is a form of villanelle, the second and fourth lines of each stanza becoming the first and third of the next, and so on, creating an effect of accretion, but the work is quite short—and generally goes for a harsher note than we have seen in Ashbery. It’s full of what one poem calls “fingers of frost for the mind.” Old skills and habits are present, of course, and the old interest in the variegated litter of the world, highways, bars, poems, paintings, movies, soap operas, streets, trees, seasons. There are chances of happiness here too, moments of sheer wonder: but there is also something more than the fear of death or of the missed life.
Then the worrying starts, a fresh leak of pain
squirts through the tape and soon the bandage is loosened,
useless in the grass where I was standing all along, a picture
to myself. So the long rain waves drain;
there’s a sense of compactness, or even nothing, though all the ships
have returned from Iceland, with stars, and with the scarves that sent them there.
Or even nothing. The surprise mention of Iceland, and the pleasure of the stars turning into scarves, can barely stave off this darkness. “The long rain waves drain”; it’s like a refrain from Hardy, the obsessive beat and rhyme of empty weather, the abolition of the human. Even a wonderful, funny poem like “Joy” (“Think of it as some god-liberating whimsy / that heaven and the emperor’s mice detain / in the province of boredom”) tells us that “the last twister corrodes into terror.” There is a sort of smile here, or the chance of a smile, it wouldn’t be an Ashbery poem if there weren’t—“it all ends in a smile somewhere,” Ashbery wrote in “The Skaters.” But the smile now faces what is probably worse than meaningless: the pain that is the meaning, and that won’t go away. The lyricism which always lurks in Ashbery, the moments of release from the almost omnipresent irony, seem sadder now, even rarer, but possibly all the more beautiful for that:
I’m like a keeper of drawings;
they’re fragile, lonely sometimes,
like best friends erected on the dark lace
of the sometime sonatas.
So there were times in between like the seasons
and the times between them when peaches fall,
and the dancers sift across the stage like leaves,
and these are dark times.
There is a good deal of implied narrative in Thom Gunn’s verse too—one poem is called “Autumn Chapter in a Novel”—but the fictional worlds are not parodied or played with, and are rarely whimsical. They serve as a backdrop, provide busy, complicated scenes full of battles, wounds, courts, palaces, cities, crime, addiction. “It was a violent time,” Gunn writes of Shakespeare’s and Jonson’s age. “Wheels, racks, and fires / In every writer’s mouth, and not mere rant.” But it’s always a violent time in Gunn’s work; and a difficult one. He is a writer “against contentment.” Lazarus, in a remarkable early poem, decides to stay dead because he doesn’t like the look of the world he is to return to.
Hence Gunn’s sympathy for dropouts, rebels, fighters, drunks, who recur constantly in his work as figures of exclusion and awkwardness, marks of what troubles all personal and social relations, and are occasionally flagged a little too obviously for the meaning we are supposed to see in them: “the disobedient / who keep a culture alive.” They appear in poems, though, where there is not the least sense of awkwardness of form or language, where an uncluttered continuity of literary tradition seems to reign—as if the poetry were an answer to a world it couldn’t reach or correct. More, as if giving up on poetry, especially the poetry which tackles the apparently barbarous, were to yield to barbarism. In a work dedicated to Yvor Winters, Gunn insists that “Continual temptation waits on each / To renounce his empire over thought and speech.” He also says, in a later work, that he tries “to render obscure passages into clear English,” where “passages” can take as many murky or literary (murky and literary) meanings as we want.
This gap between topic and tone offers very striking ironies—the best-known example is probably “On the Move,” from The Sense of Movement (1957), where a group of bikers forms an elegant, almost metaphysical image of restlessness, as if Empson or Auden had taken to the highway.
On motorcycles, up the road, they come:
Small, black, as flies hanging in heat, the Boys…
It is a part solution, after all.
One is not necessarily discord
On earth; or damned because, half animal,
One lacks direct instinct, because one wakes
A float on movement that divides and breaks…
At worst, one is in motion; and at best,
Reaching no absolute, in which to rest,
One is always nearer by not keep- ing still.
But there was always a risk that the irony would turn into a remoteness from the very persons or scenes to be held in view—those slightly too tidy rhymes, the very English and now rather dated “one”—and in later work Gunn has negotiated this risk with consummate care and tact. He needs a distance for his most powerful and thoughtful effects; but he needs to confess an involvement too, and has found increasingly effective, and witty, and moving ways of doing this. As in this evocation of Elvis Presley, where the language manages a subtle mixture of intimacy and sadness and grandeur. “Fatty,” especially, suggests slippage and ill-health but also sounds like a schoolkid’s nickname.
The King of rock ‘n roll
grown pudgy, almost matronly,
Fatty in gold lamé,
mad King encircled
by a court of guards, suffering
delusions about the assassination,
obsessed by guns, fearing
rivalry and revolt…
Similarly, this song of a wino has an almost Brechtian bitterness about it, the lilt of the verse mocking the misery of the situation, but we experience the indignity and the anger with the man rather than from a comfortable, observer’s distance:
I stand here in the cold
in a loose old suit bruised and dirty
I may look fifty years old
but I’m only thirty…
I need some change for a drink
of sweet wine Sir a bottle of sherry
it’s the sugar in it I think
will make me merry…
The bastard passed me by
fuck you asshole that’s what I say
I hope I see you cry
like Sparrow one day…
In The Man With Night Sweats, his first volume of verse in ten years, Gunn finds new registers of intimacy, and new ways of combining formal elegance with an attention to change. “To Isherwood Dying,” for example, weaves ancient tropes about love and death into a genuine delicacy on a terrible occasion, portrays death as the reward for a fidelity to desire, a loyalty to old, unsentimentalized longings. Everything depends here on the grace and fluidity of the first long sentence, the quiet echoing of “crumbled,” and the lift offered by the repeated “could be”:
It could be, Christopher, from your leafed-in house
In Santa Monica where you lie and wait
You hear outside a sound resume
Of Berlin fifty years ago
As autumn days got late—
The whistling to their girls from young men who
Stood in the deep dim street, below
Dingy façades which crumbled like a cliff.
Behind which in a rented room
You listened, wondering if
By chance one might be whistling up for you.
“It could not possibly be,”
Now it’s a stricter vigil that you hold
And from the canyon’s palms and crumbled gold
It could be possibly
You hear a single whistle call
Come out into the cold,
Courting insistent and impersonal.
There are moments in this volume, particularly toward the beginning, where Gunn’s formality, even in interplay with beautifully noted personal and sexual situations, seems a little bland, as if Auden had taken not to the highway but to the drawing room. But this effect quickly vanishes—notably in “Odysseus on Hermes,” where the man sees the boy-god as the instrument of disturbance and power, of disturbance as power, “The astonishing kiss and gift / of the wily god to the wily man”—and the later parts of the book constitute a tour de force of self-scrutiny and compassion. Even the most attractive old themes are tested and found wanting: “I said our lives are improvisation and it sounded / unrigid, liberal, in short a good idea.” It is liberal, and a good idea, but it is also, as the poem shows, a luxury unknown to the real down-and-outs, the “ugly young man,” for instance, to whom Gunn always carefully gives a quarter:
he perches on the ungiving side- walk, shits
behind bushes in the park, seldom weeps,
sleeps bandaged against the cold, curled
on himself like a wild creature,
his agility of mind wholly em- ployed
with scrounging for cigarettes, drugs, drink
or the price of Ding Dongs, with dodging knife-fights,
with ducking cops and lunatics, his existence
paved with specifics like an Imag- ist epic,
the only discourse printed on shreds of newspaper,
not one of which carries the word improvisation.
The ungiving sidewalk is a rebuke to the giver, since it seems curiously uncomplicated, hard but not tricky; and the Imagist epic is like a zoom out of the young man’s world into classy literature, a measure of the distance words and people can and may need to travel. In another poem Gunn explores the appeal of two young men pushing drugs, attractive not in spite of the danger they represent, but because of it.
I love their daring, their looks, their jargon,
and what they have in mind,
Their mind is the mind of death.
Gunn’s mind at this stage is itself close to death—to the death of all the friends and acquaintances who have succumbed to AIDS, which he calls a “plague,” and “the largest gathering of the decade”—and the last section of the book comprises an extraordinary sequence of poems about dying and watching others die; about the exclusion and guilt of health itself when the gathering is as large as it has become. The man in the title poem has adored risk, he says, and has trusted his body: cannot regret his life in “a world of wonders” but equally “cannot but be sorry” to contemplate the ruin of his physical person, and the harassing of his mind; “My mind reduced to hurry / My flesh reduced and wrecked.”
“I was delivered into time again,” Gunn says in “Lament,” a remarkable poem detailing with patience and horror the death of a friend; and finally, however “crowded with death” his thoughts are, however much he may be drawn to the risks and daring of the dying generations around him, his own mind is the mind of life. The volume ends with the glimpse of a former lover who has decided, “without a friend or wife,” to adopt a child. What Gunn admires about this decision is not an abstract kindness or zeal, but the man’s ability, as Gunn sees it, to be faithful to the spirit of his homosexual adventures while finding the music of parenthood; transposition rather than denial.
…he turned from nothing he had done,
Or was, or had been, even while he transposed
The expectations he took out at dark—
—Of Eros playing, features undis- closed—
Into another pitch, where he might work
With the same melody, and opted so
To educate, permit, guide, feed, keep warm,
And love a child…
At this point the civility which seemed bland at the start of the volume has turned into a miniature form of civilization itself; a refusal to abandon either our vulnerability or our virtues, a final moral elegance.
May 27, 1993