John Ashbery’s new volume, A Worldly Country, is another installment of the strange diaries regularly appearing from the poet over the last fifty years. (Ashbery will be eighty next July, and has had the good luck to retain the capacity to write his decades into poetry.) I think of Ashbery’s shorter poems as “diaries” because so many of them have the dailiness, the occasional inconsequentiality, the fragmentary quality, the confiding candor, and the obliquity we associate with the diary form. The diarist, careless of communication (since he already has all the information necessary for the decoding of his own private pages), may remain indifferent to explicitness, to “message,” to “statement,” to “meaning.” The diary has, at its off-the-cuff best, a kind of intriguing charm: its vicissitudes (digressions, interruptions, unexplained allusions) keep later annotators busy; the elliptical text can end up occupying less space than its commentaries.
Much as the historian must explore, by research, the brief entries of a diary (think of Laurel Ulrich’s expansion into a chronicle of the diary of a New England midwife), so the reader must intuit by association the psychic history implicit in Ashbery’s metaphors. And in spite of our attempts, much in Ashbery remains uncertain. I was once (not recognizing an allusion to the Finnish epic the Kalevala) dead wrong in these pages myself, in thinking that an Ashbery poem was about awaiting Death. Ashbery told me, with bemused sympathy for my misapprehension, that it was really about awaiting love. I suppose one could still say it was about awaiting, and that that was what mattered.
Not all of Ashbery’s poems are diary-like: his long poems (at least those that are extended autobiographies in abstract form) usually have an intermittent purposeful coherence, while the diary-lyrics allow a more whimsical, wayward, teasing progression that has been, to his readers, by turns annoying, provocative, and enchanting. Over the years, Ashbery has been claimed by many special-interest groups: the Francophiles (citing his formative years in Paris as a young man); the avant-garde (pointing to such experiments of his as the “cut-up” poem and the double-column poem); artists (finding in his work a corollary to abstract painting); and the young (delighting in his fondness for movies, cartoons, pop culture, and the transient lingo of the day). Followers of his career can admire his searching range of observation and his murmuring continuity with the entire tradition of Western poetry, from doggerel to divine poems, not to speak of his fondness for haiku. Ashbery himself is at pains to declare that he writes for everybody:
“Bound and determined” one writes a letter
to the street, in demotic, hoping a friend
will find, keep it, and analyze it.
The letter is not always found; or if found, not kept; or if kept, not analyzed; and the poet reproaches himself for the failure to reach others, which “leav[es] you brackish, untried.” And so he compulsively starts up again, hoping for a more amiable effect, “peaceful, this time”:
…It’s as though a message
Remained to be harvested, paperwork from me to you.
(The turnover from the Romantic “harvest” to the bureaucratic “paperwork” is characteristic of Ashbery’s restlessly contemporary imagination.) Even when he writes his difficult long poems, Ashbery thinks of them not as esoteric investigations but as public spectacles, “long, loose-skeined parades” deploying themselves along ordinary “service routes.” And when he addresses his audience, in “Litanies,” it is to say, with a childish glee in mock-vengeance,
You ask me what I’m doing here.
Do you expect me to actually read this?
If so, I’ve got a surprise for you—
I’m going to read it to everybody.
Like all lyric poets, Ashbery is convinced that his musical invention can rescue, from the tinny clang of contemporary noise, those universally felt surges of emotion and flexings of language in which readers can recognize themselves.
A Worldly Country understandably concerns itself, in part, with emotions attendant on old age: the pangs of memory, the menace of boredom, the fear of impending catastrophe. (It should be added that all of these feelings have appeared in Ashbery before, and are not restricted to the old.) The new volume is satiric as well as elegiac, often funny, sometimes sardonic. And in spite of its lacunae and its opacities (points of continuity with the poet’s early work, points of honor, almost), it continually implies the existence of narratives retrievable from under its impressionistic surfaces. The captivating illusion of romance, for instance, the pastoral of “idle spring,” pervades Ashbery’s more nostalgic pages, even if spring’s romance is only a “poor excuse for summer”—that season of ideal warm love that disappoints even as it is pursued. Although summer has long been known to be impossible, one languishes even in age for its innocent harbinger, spring. The longing for romance forms a continuous background to thought—but Ashbery puts that truth more wittily; even when there is no romance in the air, when age has “mislaid” it, “it’s here even when it’s not here”:
Spring is the most important of the seasons.
It’s here even when it’s not here.
All the other seasons are an excuse for it.
Spring, idle spring,
you poor excuse for summer—
Did they tell you where they mislaid you,
on which arterial road piercing the city,
fast and faster like breath?
The speeding up of arterial time—“fast and faster like breath”—is felt throughout A Worldly Country in the form of clicking clocks and hovering dooms. In the title poem, Ashbery waves aside the uncertain epistemological status of autobiography—“If it occurred/in real time, it was OK, and if it was time in a novel/that was OK too”—so that the metaphors of his stream of consciousness can proceed unbothered by any demands for consistency: “The directorate/had other, hidden goals. To proclaim logic/a casualty of truth was one.” As the poet proceeds on his “Via Negativa,” he admits that language, in tracking the contour of life, reaches at best an approximation, but he is compelled nonetheless (in the poem “Feverfew”) to art’s self-frustrating pursuit:
…Road rage had burst its flanks;
all was uncertain on the Via Negativa
except the certainly of return, return
to the approximate.
As “Feverfew” continues its narrative of the past, we are told of a horn, sounding at night and at morning, that introduces beginnings, sexual discovery, romance, uncertainty, threat. (In the horn’s contrastive summons to prayer or pleasure, Ashbery may be recalling Baudelaire’s “Recueillement,” in which night brings diverse gifts, “Aux uns portant la paix, aux autres le souci“). Those seeking pleasure exhale not sighs (as in Eliot) but jests, take up the midnight song and turn it to Edenic dream, transform the river of hellish woe to a pastoral heaven:
Night and morning a horn sounded,
summoning the faithful to prayer, the unfaithful to pleasure.
In that unseemly alley I first exhaled
a jest to your comic, crumb-crusted lips:
What if we are all ignorant of all that has happened to us,
the song starting up at midnight,
the dream later, of lamb’s lettuce and moss
near where Acheron used to flow?
The intrusion of universal doubt—“What if we are all ignorant of all that has happened to us?”—is a recurrent feature in A Worldly Country as in Ashbery’s other collections, and motivates a reexamination of the past that ceaselessly generates narratives describing once again something already written about. It is no accident that one of the best poems in the book is entitled, punningly, “Lacrimae Rerun”: the tears of things, a second showing. Its account (of a couple’s life) used to be, says Ashbery, a novel, a nursery rhyme, even music (a catch, a glee), but it has now descended into a grim sermon, while its characters are reduced to beggars asking for scraps:
We had our season together.
Operatic in the city, we shifted mightily
the stress to other fulcra as they became available.
We never knew what prompted us to smile
or to embrace. That was part of the city’s dynamic,
deep under the pavements. We dreamed of philosophy sometimes
in restaurants or beside a chattering brook.
All our resources are being trained
on this critical juncture in our fates’ history.
It’s no longer a novel or nursery rhyme,
a catch or glee, but a sermon grinding on continuously.
They come to the back door these days,
asking for a piece of meat, anything.
The sudden brutality here of “a piece of meat, anything,” is repeated elsewhere in Ashbery’s “cool” narratives, justifying the conclusion of “Lacrimae Rerun”: “Was ever anything/crosshatched so ripe with despair?”
Not all of Ashbery’s narratives are so transparent, but generally somewhere in their unfolding a recognizable crisis breaks out. Here are some such revelations:
…Now when ribald toasts
Sail round a table too fair laid out, why the consequences
are only dust, disease and old age….
Imagine that you can have this time any way it comes
easily, that a doctor wrote you a prescription
for savage joy and they say they can fill it
if you’ll wait a moment. What springs to mind?
Do you turn and walk out of the drugstore…?
Oh hell everything is that way,
this way, that way, twisted in the sun
Reading an Ashbery narrative, centering it around one or the other of its crises, entails some unsupported guessing: the reader’s imagination is lit up by its own energy of interpretation, as the Möbius strip constructed by the words of the poem exhibits its delusive twist. “Still hungry?” says the poet chattily in the midst of his longest narrative: “Read on.” Seeking out poetry is a distinct hunger, one that famishes as it satisfies: Ashbery-Sheherazade never really winds up his skein of tales, merely suspending us from night to night, from page to turning page.
In reclaiming the centrality of narrative moments within short poems (while avoiding “stories” such as those of Crabbe, Browning, or Frost) Ashbery enlarges the purview of the lyric (more usually given to meditation). He continues the efforts of those American writers—from Whitman to Pound to Crane to Ginsberg to Merrill to Ammons—who have given importance in lyric to the narrative vignette. (But he also retains the abstraction learned in part from painting, in part from Gertrude Stein, in part from Auden.)
The most moving and elaborate narrative of the ecstasies and desolations of the inner life in twentieth-century America was given us by Ashbery in his 1972 Three Poems, but this sort of expansive narrative does not appear in the new volume. Rather, the recent lyrics insist on the brevity of narrative glimpses, as a life unfolds in time. “I see by glimpses now;” Wordsworth said, “when age comes on,/May scarcely see at all.” Ashbery’s coarser “glimpses” of life among the implacable routines of old age forcibly revise the Wordsworthian lament. “The Inchcape Rock” (named after the dangerous rock off the coast of Scotland that sank the ship of the pirate who had destroyed its warning bell) begins its glimpse of the day’s duties with derisive self-irony, followed by desperation:
Prop up the “meaning,”
take the trash out, the dog for a walk,
give the old balls a scratch, apologize for three things
by Friday—oh quiet noumenon
of my soul, this is it, right?
Another glimpse, this time one of pain, announces that “the bruise will stop by later”:
For now, pain pauses in its round,
notes the time of day, the patient’s temperature,
leaves a memo for the surrogate: What the hell
did you think you were doing?…
The poet’s work—perpetuating the present in language that will remain alive in the future—is ecstatic in success, laborious in process, and (the poet reflects) for the most part unthanked. Under Ashbery’s comically up-to-date textures any number of literary threads can be seen unobtrusively glistening, tethering his poetry to that of his predecessors. As I wandered through A Worldly Country, I jotted down—just to see which past authors gave relief-quality to the allusive Ashberian map of words—the names of Stevens, Baudelaire, Emerson, Keats, Arnold, Eliot, Pater, Williams, Bishop, Shakespeare, Southey, Byron, Verlaine, Trollope, Dickinson, Lowell, Whitman, and Milton (and I may have missed many more). But in spite of Ashbery’s canonical piety (quizzical as often as not), his language mostly comes from all quarters, low and high, of the twentieth century. We find in his pages the movies (with mention of “reaction shots” and “process shots” and an elegy for the early movie star Helen Twelvetrees), astronomy (“eclipse,” “axis”), computers (“pop-ups”), bands (“back-up”), business (“profit-taking”), comics (“Daddy Warbucks”), politics (“Litmus Tale”), poetry/music (Verlaine/Fauré, “La Bonne Chanson”), war (“the fresh troops that needed freshening up”), theater (“casting call”), hotels (where an eclipse is “checking in”), and so on.
Besides the literary and the contemporary, there are in the Ashberian lexicon occasional archaisms: words such as “filigrane,” and “theorbo.” (Even these pieces of remoteness are sometimes subterraneanly linked to something modern: if Wallace Stevens writes a poem called “Asides on the Oboe,” Ashbery will reply with one called “Asides on the Theorbo”—a double-necked archaic lute.) “The mind is so hospitable,” Ashbery wrote in “Houseboat Days,” “taking in boarders.”
In perpetually creating and undoing his mini-narratives, Ashbery is hospitably admitting—in tones of gravity, jeering, regret, impatience, and erotic reminiscence—everything from rabbits to Acheron. “The Recipe,” for instance, seems to be a set of instructions for continuing a relationship, but its first tone is nostalgic, as it harks back to a shared past:
Lie in that grass. It’s what we came for.
Nothing could ever be that velvety again,
so close to the ground. My gaze fathoms whiskers….
The recipe vectored a long-ago collision by a pier
in and out of fins of sun,
now labeled and put away, with much else,
and too little of what was needed
that particular afternoon
close to the source of warmth and confusion.
“The Recipe” then closes its narrative with a comic and camp proposal (of marriage, of the future, of the audience) which does not vitiate the warm pastoral that preceded it:
I’ll post the banns, send out invitations, polish toenails,
describe moot situations to the skeptical. You rest the same.
Ashbery has staked his poetic wager on our recognition of his lexical and tonal hospitality, and on what it enables him to say about the circumstances—mechanical, physical, and emotional—of modern living. Above all, he has staked his reputation on restoring to the lyric the tones—impatient, jocular, slangy, fragmented—of everyday conversation. He asks if his wager was the right one:
What were the rights and the right ways?
Did we invest our strength in the kind grains
of conversation that blew across our page, and out?
“The kind grains/of conversation” are a sort of manna, refreshing the traveler as he slogs through the desert of exhausted language.
In several of the poems of A Worldly Country Ashbery casts a retrospective glance at his life’s work. The title of one of these poems, “The Gallant Needful,” alludes to the most famous biblical defense of the contemplative life, Jesus’ rebuke to Martha (Luke 10):
[She] said “Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? Bid her therefore that she help me.” And Jesus answered and said unto her, “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”
“Gallant” (in the title “The Gallant Needful”) brings an air of insouciant chivalry to the otherwise earnest allusion. Ashbery bids farewell here to his poems (“Farewell nightmares, simulacra”), and represents his life-work as an attempt to design and wear new clothes. But the clothes of style, like all others, become out of date—they turn into those “robes surannées” worn by the “défuntes Années” (“Recueillement” again). Nowhere is Ashbery’s commitment to the conversational narrative better seen than in his dégagé renewal, in “The Gallant Needful,” of the conventional metaphor of clothes (flickering through literature from Saint Paul to Shakespeare to Carlyle). Shakespeare’s version arrives as Prospero, preparing to leave his isle, proposes to lay down his magic robes and resume the clothes of Milan: “I will discase me.” Ashbery, in his demotic version, imagines his style, its era now over, being recycled into the Lincolnesque Americana of a stovepipe with shawls tied around it:
THE GALLANT NEEDFUL
The hat hasn’t worn too well. Nor, come to think
of it, have the pants. The shirt and cap are negligible.
As for the drawers…
So it went. Time was running
downhill while the clothes gave out. No one
wanted to wear them any more, which was
understandable, given that clothes are a going concern
to many. Mended with gay stuffs, they’ll serve
another time, tied like shawls around
Farewell nightmares, simulacra.
All the time a little is growing. As soup is to stew,
so the sea to bubbling chasms that prop up the “meaning.”
Nice is nice enough. Just don’t expect thanks.
The one thing needful—to have created, by contemplation and research and originality, a new style—is followed by the poet’s rueful observation of that very style’s descent into obsolescence. The bubbling style-chasms of emotion that support statement, message, “meaning,” will give rise to poems by others in the future; for the moment, it is enough to have made something “nice”—a typical Ashberian understatement. His farewells infuse an astringent mockery into the intrinsic mournfulness of elegy.
Over and over Ashbery rinses the palate of style, cleansing from it, with his brisk narratives, the sickly aftertaste of imitative verse. Rewriting the title of Katharine Lee Bates’s pious anthem as “America the Lovely,” he satirizes aesthetic desire:
If it’s loveliness you want, here, take some,
hissed the black fairy….
Only be careful what you ask for,
she warned. Here in hitherTartarus we have names
for jerks like you….
A passage such as this takes us first by its comedy, but we have only to rewrite it slightly to see how much it also takes us by its hearable cadences and its sibilant sounds. Imagine it phrased otherwise, becoming more clunky, less peremptory, its language closer to the simplicities of the fairy tales it stems from:
If what you’re seeking is loveliness, I have some for you,
the black fairy said.
Only think first about your wish,
she continued. Here in the first chamber of Tartarus we know the nature
of people of your sort.
It is always hard to talk about the way rhythms, sounds, and syntactic articulations fall on the ear, but the one thing needful in a poem is that its rhythms should somehow be seductive. Ashbery’s almost always are, and it is those rhythms of utterance that propel us through his strange narratives:
The clock was on the verge of striking. And you know something,
It never did! Not while I was there, anyway.
There were shouts, always the same, unusable shouts
and an angry wind starting up in the hedges
but unable to articulate, like me and the other guests.
Again it was time to flee….
We may not know the story behind the chaos, but we know that the poet, like us, has met it before. Yet every time it comes (says this poem tellingly entitled “And Other Stories”) the chaos needs a different articulation:
…This had been foreseen,
but like a migration, took on another sense
as it unfolded, the sky Royal Worcester by now,
a narrative that will endure for many years,
even if no one reads it….
With that envoi, Ashbery commits his endlessly unfolding narrative to the printer, counting on its intrinsic worth to preserve it, at least for a time.
What difference has it made to American poetry to have had Ashbery within its precincts for the last fifty years? In one sense, hardly any: any number of poets go on writing bad blank verse, bad rhymed verse, bad short lines, bad long lines—all stiffly talking, all tugging their forelock to some predecessor utterly unlike themselves whose language they find “poetic.” With not a stanza of interesting syntax, with not a line of beguiling rhythm, with not a glance at the contemporary language buzzing about their ears, with not a spark of intellectual originality, the self-styled poets nonetheless find publication somewhere, somehow. If they stay around long enough, they even get prizes. And it has always been this way (witness the poets laureate of England, and the feeble best-selling women poets of the nineteenth century). Keats himself raged that it should be so, calling upon the sun god Apollo (in his role as author of plagues) to slay all the bad poets, glad to die himself if he can see them destroyed:
Apollo! faded, far-flown Apollo!
Where is thy misty pestilence to creep
Into the dwellings, through the door crannies,
Of all mock lyrists, large self-worshippers
And careless hectorers in proud bad verse.
Though I breathe death with them it will be life
To see them sprawl before me into graves.
No one can say just what effect the work of good poets may have on others. But just as in Ashbery’s lines there hover the voices of the past, so in future lines by another original poet will hover the voice of Ashbery. That voice—tender and funny, full of gaiety and gloom, perpetuating the century’s lexicon as it mockingly delineates its follies—is entering the ears of the talented, who will follow its lead not by imitating its inimitable elations but by having learned from its tuning-fork accuracy. Ashbery’s own comment on the bewildering enterprise of making sense of one’s journey through the world looks haplessly to the consolations of the poems of the past, petrified in their “stone books”:
We’re leaving again of
our own volition
for bogus-patterned plains,
shreds of maps recurring
like waves on a beach, each
and likely to go on being so.
But sometimes they get, you know, confused,
and change their vows or the ground rules
that sustain all of us. It’s cheery, then, to reflect on the past
and what it brought us. To take stone books down
from the shelf. It is good, in fact,
to let the present pass without commentary
for what it says about the future.
There was nothing carnal in the way omens became portents.
“The wraparound flux we intuit/as time,” Ashbery continues, “has other claims on our inventiveness” besides the creation of poetry, adding wryly, “A lot of retail figures in it.” Ashbery has always been agreeably conscious of all that life offers besides literature, retail included. It is for that reason that his poems seem to stretch over our contemporary consciousness without strain: nothing in ordinary life is alien to his democratic and comprehensive and indulgent eye, nor does the omnipresence of the ordinary make him forget the equal omnipresence, on another plane, of Satie or Fauré or Parmigianino. It is a fraternal sensibility that animates these Ashberian pages, puzzling though they can be, for as we encounter Ashbery’s omens and portents, they oddly and satisfactorily take on for us the shape of our own.
March 29, 2007