John Ashbery

Bebeto Mathews/AP Photo

John Ashbery, New York City, September 2008

When we say that a poem is “good”—not with the dubious implication that it’s not great but with genuine satisfaction—are we unconsciously echoing Genesis, “And God saw that it was good”? It’s not such a stretch: the poet and critic Susan Stewart theorizes that the declaration of goodness is one of the three qualities of the biblical phrase that make it “a paradigm for the philosophy of art in the West.” And what this paradigm implies is that the work, in order to be judged good, must be done: “The proclamation of something’s goodness indicates it is time to stop making.” The scriptural word in the Hebrew borrows from an Akkadian verb meaning “to inspect and approve,” used in the Code of Hammurabi to refer to the work of masons and other craftsmen; surely a building is good if it’s finished enough to keep the elements out and not fall on one’s head. Alternate translations of the Hebrew have found English terms other than “good”: “It was declared finished” or “brought to a satisfying close.”

This equivalence between the good and the finished—with its theologically significant threshold-crossing—has been challenged in all the arts since the beginning of modernism. In its friendlier versions, the unfinished work—the serial, the aleatory, the collaged—invites the reader to participate in its completion by supplying her own interpretation, especially if that helps to build a larger discourse around it. In its more ambivalent versions, the unfinished poses a vertiginous conundrum, like geometric patterns in Islamic art, which may be truncated but never bounded. Enacting a vision of infinity, the unfinished is disorienting. Fainting might be a proper homage.

I didn’t faint while reading any of the five unfinished works that compose Parallel Movement of the Hands, John Ashbery’s first collection since his death, at age ninety, in 2017. But their typically jaunty mood notwithstanding, I noticed a preponderance of the uncanny, a sense of spooky afterlife or alternate dimensions:

My son was born yesterday. No, it only seems that way. He has been around for many years, since my earliest childhood in fact. He speaks but says little. He is as the lining to my coat. We never see each other, and there is no distance between us. Once we were on a golf course and he said, “Dad, why are those men hitting those little balls. Why doesn’t God punish them?” Another time we were running around in the dark, downtown, and I truly understood him for once, understood the meaning of a scream.

That’s from “The Kane Richmond Project,” a long poem written in 2002, based on the eponymous actor of Hollywood serials from the 1930s and 1940s. What we would ordinarily call surreal or oneiric about this passage is synonymous with cinematic: it is a poem based on films, specifically the kind of film that popularized the cliffhanger. Conversely, the cliffhanger borrows from our dreamlife: What does it mean to wake up? It is to create a cliffhanger at the end of sleep. Unlike film cliffhangers, but very much like our dreams, Ashbery’s entries don’t pick up where they left off.

Each of the poems that make up Parallel Movement of the Hands is based on, or makes reference to, sister arts: “The History of Photography” and “The Kane Richmond Project” refer to visual arts; “The Art of Finger Dexterity,” “Sacred and Profane Dances,” and “21 Variations on My Room” are either based on or linked conceptually to musical scores. Their spookiness emanates from mechanization: photographs and movies are dreams produced using machines; “The Art of Finger Dexterity” arises from a series of piano exercises that roboticize the hands. The stanzas that make up “21 Variations” each grow in sequence by one line, a mathematical method of composition. Of the 265 pages of the book, almost 150 are given to poems; the rest are taken up by introductions, notes, reproductions of typescripts, and appendices that make it clear, as perhaps nowhere else in Ashbery’s oeuvre thus far, how much his work owed to procedural methods.

You could say that the procedural impulse underlies all formal poetry. Ashbery’s first book, Some Trees (1956), displayed a virtuosic mastery of form: sonnet, sestina, pantoum, canzone, eclogue, pastoral, and, not incidentally, instruction manual. Karin Roffman, in The Songs We Know Best (2017), her exquisite critical biography of his early years, describes how the poem “Some Trees” came about as a solution to a formal problem: how to write a love poem that wasn’t just a diary entry. He found a model in Marianne Moore’s “By Disposition of Angels,” which, Roffman writes, “Ashbery loved [for how it] gracefully enacts a relationship between the ‘particular’ and ‘unparticular.’” The poem is a “milestone,” and it achieves something he had been trying to do for many years—“the combination of experience and transcendence,” Roffman notes, before placing his lines alongside Moore’s:


Speech that does not ask me if I hear it? (Moore)
as if speech/Were a still performance. (Ashbery)

Something heard most clearly when not near it? (Moore)
Silence about to be filled with noises (Ashbery)

One has seen, in such steadiness never deflected, (Moore)
That their merely being here/Means something, (Ashbery)

By putting his own sense of rhythm and line length directly in dialogue with Moore’s language, as though they shared a secret, he had created something new.

(Sadly, the young man who had inspired the love poem refused to acknowledge it.)

If Roffman’s account of Ashbery’s life did not end at the summer of 1955, we could read on to find out more about his Fulbright years in France, which fed into his second collection, The Tennis Court Oath (1962). Often referred to as his most experimental book, it was written using radical procedural methods—collage, cut-ups—associated with Raymond Roussel, the French writer championed by Duchamp and the Surrealists, and a huge influence on the young Ashbery. In his Norton Lecture on Roussel, Ashbery described his first encounter with his book-length poem Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique:

The poem was in seemingly regular alexandrines, but constantly interrupted by parentheses, which were in turn interrupted by double, triple, quadruple, and even quintuple parentheses. In fact, each canto consisted of a single fairly short sentence expanded to epic length by the accordion-like system of parentheses. There were footnotes as well, also in rhyming alexandrines and with their own sets of parentheses.

Years later, pursuing an (unfinished) dissertation on Roussel, Ashbery figured out:

Although Roussel had always been fascinated by stories within stories, what the French call a novel with drawers, here the situation is reduced to many sentences interlocking within a single sentence. By flattening the thing out, so to speak, that is by unraveling the parenthetical thoughts and arranging them in proper sequence, it is possible to read the poem and make perfect sense of it…. It is the construction, not the content, of the poem that is mysterious, and content is definitely upstaged by construction.

Collage was the major innovation of modernist poetry in English, and Ashbery wielded the method his entire career. Pound and Eliot introduced it, studding their work with quotations from the classical canon; Moore mixed high and low, newspapers and guidebooks, the famous and the anonymous. Collage was Ashbery’s medium in visual arts; he had pursued painting lessons as a teenager, then became an accomplished collagist at Harvard.

In 1962, when The Tennis Court Oath was received with bewilderment, he probably took the method further than anyone besides Pound. Ashbery’s subsequent books pulled back on the radical fragmentation; starting with Rivers and Mountains (1966), his third, the collage elements were expertly, subtly woven into the fabric of the Wordsworthian meditation. The long concluding poem, “The Skaters,” for instance, lifts language from Three Hundred Things a Bright Boy Can Do, a turn-of-the-century handbook for boys that includes chapters on everything from ventriloquism to identifying butterflies, but the rough edges of fragmentation are softened by a Romantic tenor:

As skaters elaborate their distances,
Taking a separate line to its end. Returning to the mass,
they join each other
Blotted in an incredible mess of dark colors, and again reappearing to take the theme
Some little distance, like fishing boats developing from the
land different parabolas,
Taking the exquisite theme far, into farness, to Land’s End,
to the ends of the earth!

A straight line runs from “The Instruction Manual” in Some Trees to “The Skaters” to “The Art of Finger Dexterity,” which takes its impetus from Carl Czerny’s renowned Die Kunst der Fingerfertigkeit, Opus 740, a pedagogical tool composed by the man who studied with Beethoven, and taught Liszt, in Vienna in the early nineteenth century. A gently parodic thread runs through Ashbery’s poems, sending up the notion of tutelage, or putting it in opposition to play. Here is a stanza from “The Art of Finger Dexterity,” begun in 2007:

The nutmeg house, truffle weather,
that season’s wand—“gotta
be responsible,” Robert said. Yeah right.
Ministers advocate aid. Percentage
subtracted from total equals chaos, more,
where reckoning is factored in like plaited willow,
unsung and a joy to itself. Mucus-slathered,
boy ghost in keyhole mirror fought off dogs of death
and lost. Still, a loophole

might open of its own volition…

Roffman’s biography describes the boredom and loneliness of Ashbery’s childhood in far upstate New York. Sodus, where his parents ran a farm, was the instruction manual: never-ending chores, repairs, husbandry; physicality and duress; social isolation; parental tension and worry in lean years. Pultneyville, where he visited his grandmother in the summer, was Edenic, but still too small for Ashbery, who took music and art lessons and became the kind of reader that kids aren’t allowed to be anymore, with their screens and their overscheduling. Solitude bred boredom; the only escape was reading; reading concentrated his imagination and expanded its repertoire of self-entertainment.


“The Kane Richmond Project” collages text from the Tom Swift and Hardy Boys adventure series from the 1950s and 1960s, in addition to the actor’s serials. This, too, points to Ashbery’s originary identification of childhood, reverie, and eroticism: included with the poem are reproductions of some of his source materials, the children’s books surrounding a publicity shot of Kane Richmond in his “spy-smasher” costume, a variant of the handsome square-jawed American hero from the midcentury.

It will remind readers of Girls on the Run (1999), Ashbery’s last book-length poem. Based on the apocalyptic dreamworld of outsider artist Henry Darger—famous for his child-warriors, “the Vivian Girls,” sometimes disporting themselves naked, sometimes with penises—it was thought to be his swan song to the long poem. Parallel Movement of the Hands shows that Ashbery was working on long poems sporadically during the same period that he published his last collections of shorter poems; he kept them in folders in the “working” area of his filing cabinet, where his assistant Emily Skillings found them after his death.

Emily Skillings emerges as the heroine of this story. Ashbery, busy typing when she arrived at his apartment in 2010, deputized his husband, David Kermani, to interview her in his stead; I like to think he hired her in part for her name, which he might have borrowed from one of his serials. She is in the unique position of understanding his work from the inside while imbuing her labor—in all its fastidious attention to detail—with a fan’s passion:

As a person, Ashbery was curious, kind, fiercely intelligent, quick-witted, sensitive, and hilarious; caring for him, his correspondence, his apartment, his poetry, and his archive in the small ways I could was the greatest privilege.

She acknowledges the “incredibly exciting, almost voyeuristic” feeling of having access to unfinished works by her favorite artist, but she also perceives something mystical “in seeing the corrections, the thought process, the additions and subtractions.” She remembers him speaking, in an interview with Mark Ford, about the studies Jacques-Louis David did for his unfinished painting Le Serment du Jeu de paume (The Tennis Court Oath): “Before he did paintings of clothed people he drew them naked, and then after he’d do them with clothes—so there are drawings of naked men waving their hats in the air.” Ashbery, she felt, would understand and approve of her sleuthing among his unfinished works. Her accounts of finding the various manuscripts, in various states of disarray, transform the drudgery of documents and filing cabinets into an adventure tale.

In fact, reading Skillings’s extensive introduction and encyclopedic notes, one is reminded of those archivist-detective stories, Pale Fire and The Aspern Papers, crossed, perhaps, with a Dickinson exegesis: Which title did he want here—“The Kane Richmond Project” (typed), “The Kane Richmond Story” (“Story” handwritten with question mark on typescript), or “Spy Smasher” (typed beneath the first title, it is circled and questioned in handwriting: “Change title?”)? When was a typo an error, or an error a bit of mischief?

In his poetry, Ashbery had a habit of using both British and American spellings of words, choosing alternate spellings over dominant ones, creating compounds that would ordinarily be hyphenated or separated and making two words out of what would normally be one.

Ashbery was well aware of these “bumps,” which were “an important aspect of my poetry…. I’ve argued with translators over this. They invariably say, ‘But you can’t say that in French.’ And I say, ‘But you can’t say it in English either.’”

Another aspect of the detective story is the dating of these unfinished works. That turns out to be pretty straightforward, as Ashbery dated all his drafts. But often he would carry his drafts in briefcases between his home in Hudson, New York, and his Manhattan apartment, and pages would get lost or misplaced, then resurface:

Sometimes, Ashbery even stopped writing in the middle of a paragraph, sentence, or line (indicated by his placement of the date there) and picked up a few days later. In a single typescript, dates can be both written in and typed.

Thus did Ashbery build cliffhangers into his own creative process. One can go back and forth between the text and Skillings’s list of dates to recreate a timeline of the poem and speculate about lacunae.

Perhaps the most heroic feat Skillings performs is in the notes to the poems, where she painstakingly tracks down as many cultural references as she can. Ashbery packed his work with them, as if to provide an alternate definition of autobiography—not what you did and where you went, but what consumed your attention. For “The History of Photography,” Skillings locates references—to name just a few—to Daguerre, Baron Adolph de Meyer, Eadweard Muybridge, Eugène Atget, Francis Frith, and Charles Nègre, as well as Walter Benjamin, Ernest Hemingway, Matthew Arnold, Sir Walter Raleigh, Macbeth, and Robert Ripley of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!

“The Kane Richmond Project” is a tour de force of reference hunting: besides the Tom Swift and Hardy Boys adventure books and the actor’s oeuvre, Skillings must have had to familiarize herself with a vast array of cultural artifacts from the history of film, television, science fiction, children’s literature, art music, and folk music from the twentieth century and beyond, mostly American but sometimes French or British. It seems like a characteristic bit of Ashberian mischief that the poet who parodied instruction manuals ended up becoming a curriculum unto himself.

Thus Parallel Movement of the Hands is in fact two parallel books by Ashbery (providing the poems) and Skillings (providing the narrative and editorial scaffolding). The light this sheds on Ashbery’s procedures is welcome, and explains a little bit (but not reductively) about how the effects of his verse were achieved and how wrong detractors are when they say he utters nonsense. There are at least two ways I read his poems, including these posthumous ones. I see Ashbery as “a linguist creating several languages within a single language,” which is how Marianne Moore described Wallace Stevens. My theory, I feel, is borne out by lines like this from “19. Tense Positions with a ‘Peaceful’ Wrist,” a section of “The Art of Finger Dexterity”:

If New England resembled Bulgaria, both would
look like this bookcase that stands so moderately,
like a birthday, “things seen from right to left.”

And in that case, possession (nine points of the)
would inject its other meaning. Is this, in fact, Brazil,
which all foreign countries resemble, even
the United States? If not, let us hide our toes,
fall backward into stagnant ether that is what
rises at the end of all days, of all voyages
in and from the parlor. We must translate what is tense
into peaceful outcomes that will ripple back
to foreign origins, not wishing to know the name
for what happened or why we connived at it,
only that all points are equidistant and pleased,
and part of summer, the part of you that got on with it.

Like Mallarmé, who enjoined us to remember that a poem is not a newspaper, Ashbery attempts a parallel English in which a sentence doesn’t merely exist to communicate its lexical meaning in the shortest amount of time. There is no message; it is all metonyms: the metonyms of geography (New England, Bulgaria, Brazil), time (birthday, points on a timeline), language (bookcase, translate, tense, name). The imaginative distance between “voyages” and “the parlor” is thus collapsed in language, in reading, and in the rhythmic weaving of metonyms to create pleasurable gaps and sudden connections.

That segues into the second way I read Ashbery: as pure reverie, defined by Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Reverie (1960) as “lived out in a relaxed time which has no linking force. Since it functions with inattention, it is often without memory.” This was evident from Ashbery’s public readings, several of which I attended in the late 1990s and early 2000s: unlike poetry readings where active listening—following intentional meanings as syntax unfolds in time—is real work, an Ashbery reading was more like a meditative exercise. The beautiful sentences just washed over you; I remember audiences seeming relaxed in their alertness, and—unusual for readings—unbored.

Skillings’s book offers a third way to read Ashbery: as a secret compendium of references, a social gathering of kindred spirits that offers itself up for literary detective work. It doesn’t much matter, of course, that these poems are “unfinished.” They metaphorically keep alive the poet who is physically no longer with us, as well as the other makers and dreamers who aroused his gigantic imagination.