Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
James Rother

Yada, Yada, Yada for the Ages: John Ashbery and the New American Sublime

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          Two twisted dry turds on the sidewalk;
          the weather one's gray dropcloth.
          What town is this?

    A bicuspid rune capped with a question biting off more Parsifalian overtones than it can chew. Could this be part of some ceremony or other? The query looks formulaic, like the kind put to objects in order to lift a prohibition or dissolve a writ of prosecution. Something that has to be said to make something else happen. No closure, no damp gust bringing rain. But wait: what is being asked about in line three concerns the town, not the two turds. And what's that about the weather? Can it be an object, too? Much in these 16 words conduces to fundament without ever bottoming out. Something seems screwy here. Whose Chapel Perilous is this, anyway? 
    It wouldn't hurt to scout the lay of the land, assuming of course the land is scoutable. The turds are dry, which suggests a scruffy part of town, one where cleanup squads are few, where dogs roam without papers and their owners without ziplock bags. Are turds a sign no one takes for a wonder? Should we be wondering what town this is? Where the weather is one's gray dropcloth, questions seem something of a luxury. On the face of it, a dropcloth would appear to signify (by scrimreader's rule of thumb?) a grayness not to be seen as symbolic but as an appointment tastefully dictated by the designer allegory under way. Lights and filters cut no ice here because the stage being struck is private and in need of no more illumination for its Beckettesque musings than a gray dropcloth might give leave to leak through. Gray weather is, after all, what we're talking about, though there is a tendency, isn't there, to mistake the second line as reading "The weather's one gray dropcloth"? Maybe not. But in any case, this is all becoming very annoying. What town is this? Never mind. Give me a minute; see how you like my shoes.
    Or rather, "See How You Like My Shoes," the title of a poem whose initial three lines, culminating in the sibylline formula "What town is this?", appear above. Is there anyone at all familiar with contemporary American verse who wouldn't recognize almost immediately that these lines were by the King of the Rubber Room Ringoes, the Darkness (formerly "Prince") of The Tennis Court Oath, John Ashbery? The question seems nearly as supererogatory as "What town is this?" But it's too early so to digress. A return to the town itself and its mysterious turds is in order. Or would be, if the rest of the poem made things any clearer, which, by any standard of measurement, it does not.

        The weather has a choke hold on foreseeing
        what happens to it.
        Heck there is nothing but the alike
        except persons are not. Things are
        like institutions. . . .

Surely the "poet" has to be kidding. Reading this, could one possibly disagree with James Longenbach, who opined in "Ashbery and the Individual Talent" that such poems "might be the warped but inevitable conclusion [sic] of a debased New Critical aesthetic: the poem that does not mean, but is." In this year of questionable grace, 2001, such a dog, even at the end of a bedazzling MacLeish, just will not hunt. A poem may not mean to mean, but if it is to be in any meaningful sense, it must first (also in a meaningful sense) be a poem; and in order to be that, it must mean something
    But wait. Can "The weather has a choke hold on foreseeing / what happens to it" roll over into anything as fungible as "interpretation"? It goes through the motions of an English sentence, with subject noun, verbal, and predicate complement all duly in place. But its resemblance to a Burroughs-style cut-up undercuts its credibility as a legitimate declarative. Take away its nominalizing focus ("weather"), whose referent boots up something associated with a verb par excellence, and the rest evaporates into a blowsily dissembling predicate that performs none of a predicate's ordinary functions. A motion it unleashes not, nor does it a relation state. Does what it "says" about "the weather" link or line up with the earlier allusion to the weather as "one's gray dropcloth"? Not by any means that could be said to leap out at the reader and embolden him to fit plug to outlet. But this is getting us nowhere. The unreadability of a poem like "See How You Like My Shoes" is more than just dyslexic. It's Planckian. In fact, the Ashbery rationale is a lot like a fully mechanized quantum: its movements are unpredictable and its probabilities make light of wave and particle alike.
    In the sixth line things unravel still further. A remark begins with an unexpletable deletive--"Heck"--which does to its tone what hitting an air pocket does to an airplane. From a planh without a plan we're flung without warning into a briar patch of informality and euphemism, of hick Americana summoned from its sleep of decades by a hayseed monosyllable. Worse, it tops a cliché whose tenor is nugatory and whose vehicle appears contradictory. "Nothing but" brooks no exceptions, so what can it mean to say that the world is governed by the ubiquity of the same, the surface of its all-inclusiveness being broken only by--you guessed it--people? 
    Who are in a way the problem when it comes to finding a place in the (albeit small) corner of intelligible cosmos for the Ashbery poem. Which, when you come right down to it, hasn't changed all that much in years. The signature effect of an Ashbery piece continues almost instantly recognizable: a somewhat surreal non-sequitur bounded on either side by rapid cuts, low-slung montage, and time-delayed gags bereft of both set-ups and punchlines. His manner today, as in 1975, or 1985, or 1995, persists in being not so much a style as the verse equivalent of Marcel Duchamps's Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2. For knockoff artists who would approximate its lollygag-me-with-a-spoon sublimity and faux-Escher sketchiness, the Ashbery poem looks like an easy mark--a garrulous subversion of the confessional lyric. (Little more than a cottage industry in the days of Sexton, Swenson and Plath, the genre later achieved powerhouse status in the "postconfessional" lyrics of Rich, Olds and Forché). No slight against women poets is intended here, but is it fair to dismiss as anti-feminist rant the suggestion that victim-mongering or, more cruelly perhaps, the "underbitch syndrome" associated with the suicides of Sexton and Plath, contributed more than any other single factor to the confessional lyric's making such a dent in the popular consciousness? Yes, there were also male poets whose suicides scarred the period--John Berryman being one--but theirs failed on the whole to achieve the marketability, the intensely mediated Time-liness of Sexton's and Plath's. (Hart Crane's suicide was accorded a comparable cachet in literary circles, but occurring in 1932 it struck Americans in the know differently--as shocking perhaps, but not in itself a scandal.
    Even so, the reader of this essay may be asking, What does any of this have to do with what makes an Ashbery poem different from everybody else's? A bit more of "See How You Like My Shoes" might help clarify things.

                                . . . Stumbling from perjured
        personhood, all seem alike
        but the fugitive person has got things
        his sisters (in Olympic
        statehood) haven't got: to mimic
        two legs like a dog is out
        and times three sheet music in the door
        is to planting. They really resist,
        soaringly. The salesman head
        is two whole shoes, and that be
        the graveyard by the flame talking,
        earnest ouch spelled by night.

This is pricklier and less reducible to serviceable language than almost any of Ashbery's later poems, even those where he is up to his saltiest tricks. In fact, in its apparent reversion to collage techniques it seems to evoke the sort of concept-Scrabble fielded in dead-end '60s works like "Europe." The reader has to surrender more than just an insistence on a recount when confronted with this kind of thing, he has to disbelieve in the very suspension giving rise to such a demented afflatus in the first place. 
    If one didn't know better, one might think that Ashbery writes this way every so often to keep his membership in the American Association of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poets and his subscription to the influential journal Conjunctions paid up and current. In those circles, poems like "Europe"--indeed, the whole of The Tennis Court Oath--live on in all the resplendent panoply of avant-garde legendariness. They can't die, they can only ascend the wheel of perpetual resurrection, to be anticipated in ever-new, transformative guise, over and over again. What could be more Susan Howe-ish than this falling-off-the-page cruet from the depths of the soul's flea market--

                            . . .They really resist,
        soaringly. The salesman head
        is two whole shoes, and that be
        the graveyard by the flame talking,
        earnest ouch spelled by night

--unless it be this by Susan Howe herself:

        heroine in ass-skin
        mouthing O Helpful
        = father revivified waking when
        nickname Hero men take pity spittle speak . . .
                                            ("White Foolscap")

Poetry like Howe's makes even Ashbery's in-your-face insouciance seem down-at-heels and old hat, not to mention the typographic abstract expressionism of the posthumous Charles Olson, whose final Maximus Poems (1975) Howe is known to admire. The sort of thing best described as "free dissociation," it apes the trigger-word clustering technique of free-form composition, and leaves arrangements as permanent as coffee grounds in a sink.
    For the record, "How Do You Like My Shoes" goes on for another eleven lines without much change in direction or readability. One line has the temerity to read: "They was many of same left out", making the score at the end of the poem Home, 0; Guests, 0. What looked promising up around the first few lines sputters into garble or something as nearly vertiginous as Ashbery by-the-yard: 

        On this oceloted tree they still think and wonder
        how the person caved in
        yet remained so spic-and-span a presence
        all during the end-of-century doldrums
        someone forgot in the telling.

Ashbery is not always so careless with the proprieties. He can versify or be fine by turns, depending on his mood; and though he doesn't much credit inspiration--"I. . . used to think that I had to wait until I was 'inspired' before I could write, and then I realized that I hardly ever was inspired, so that I'd have to come up with something else," he said in a 1997 interview--his best work is as disciplined and controlled as that of the tightest "strong measures" poets. "Vaucanson," from April Galleons (1987), takes imposture to the brink but leaves it there, amid late Stevensian grandeurs and promontories of elegance the elder Auden glimpsed aglint in the distance in "Good-bye to the Mezzogiorno":

        It was snowing as he wrote.
        In the gray room he felt relaxed and singular,
        But no one, of course, ever trusts these moods.

        There had to be an understanding to it.
        Why, though? That always happens anyway,
        And who gets the credit for it? Not what is understood,
        Presumably, and it diminishes us
        In our getting to know it

        As trees come to know storm
        Until it passes and light falls anew
        Unevenly, on all the muttering kingship:
        Things with things, persons with objects,
        Ideas with people or ideas.

        It hurts, this wanting to give a dimension
        To life, when life is precisely that dimension.
        We are creatures, therefore we walk and talk
        And people come up to us, or listen
        And then move away.

        Music fills the spaces
        Where figures are pulled to the edges,
        And it can only say something. . . .

It will take 19 more lines to round off this minuet of lightly flayed insecurities--knife-thoughts, with neither pages to cut nor commemorative cakes to slice. The anonymous scriptor who allows his thoughts to drift soundlessly onto the page as it snows outside his room is at the mercy of a number of things, not least of which is his own impersonal freedom. He would like a clean break with self-deception but it is not forthcoming. The need (tautological, surely) to bring life to life is, he finds, painful. "It hurts, this wanting to give a dimension / To life, when life is precisely that dimension." To make matters worse, the life he once hoarded now proves unrecoverable: "Life must be back there. You hid it / So no one would find it / And now you can't remember where." Proof that something is wrong is suggested by the appearance of the second person pronoun, Ashbery's dark familiar, which, as in so many of his other poems, provides the tentative "I" underwriting the recessive "he" with an enabling show of shadowy, pusillanimous hands. Clearly, in this dance of the sugar-plum pronomials the double-dream of Self is but a shadowboxer's pas-de-deux, a way of fencing with identity without having to muster one for the lists.
    The poem's title, as always in Ashbery, pinpoints a moral with a suitably bent punctum. Jacques de Vaucanson was an 18th Century maker of mechanical contrivances--flute players, ducks--whose business it was to be lifelike in their inner as well as their outer movements. His famous duck not only flapped its wings and quacked like a real duck, it also moved its bowels like a real duck. Its simulations left little to the imagination in an Age that demanded more than just moulds in plaster, made with no loss of--but enough: let Hugh Kenner's The Counterfeiters (1968), an indispensable guide to things Vaucansonian, fill in the necessary facts:

. . . [By] 1738 Jacques de Vaucanson (1709-1782) had exhibited in Paris a mechanical duck which could waddle and splash, beat the air with detailed feathered wings, wag its head, quack, pick up grain, ingest this with swallowing movements, and eventually excrete the residue: for the production of which latter 'it was necessary in a little space to construct a chemical laboratory, to decompose the main constituents [of the grain] and cause them to issue forth at will.' Each wing contained four hundred moving pieces. . .

What does an 18th Century French fashioner of mechanical ducks have to do with Ashbery's neurasthenic mise en scène? Only that neurasthenic mises en scène are themselves mechanical contrivances behind which evidence of the human merely flickers, like a custodial flame in a stiff breeze. And that Vaucanson's art could cause to materialize out of moving parts a "clockwork flautist with leather-tipped fingers" who, had he been mechanized to think, might well have had this cross his mind,

        We are creatures, therefore we walk and talk
        And people come up to us, or listen
        And then move away.

While it is possible to say of everything this poet has published since Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) that it is vintage Ashbery, it's useful to inquire just what sort of grapes we are talking about. Having brought out no fewer than twelve books of poems (up to and including the current volume, Your Name Here) over the last quarter century, Ashbery has maintained a consistency of tone and musical asperity virtually unparalleled in postmodern times. Which is to say, that the reader of Can You Hear, Bird (1995)--the volume in which "See How You Like My Shoes" appears--will find little that is new in As We Know (1979) that is newer in A Wave (1985), or in Wakefulness (1988), or in And the Stars Were Shining (1994). Nor has Ashbery himself been all that helpful recently in throwing light on just what constitutes the Ashbery approach to a poem. When pressed by an interviewer from Bookforum (Fall 2000 issue), the poet could only characterize the "Ashberian model" as a "stop making sense type of poem, which I guess I've encouraged." 
    He may have encouraged it, but the phrase itself hasn't accurately described his work since the "collage period" of The Tennis Court Oath back in the early '60s. An Ashbery poem makes perfect sense, if by sense we mean an order established by a poem's words being read matching up intelligibly with the order those same words maintain when subjected to interpretation. To put it another way, sense is dependent upon there being no "garbage in, garbage out" component in what a poem says or in what a poem's language, in the manner in which it is disposed to mean, actually goes about the business of meaning. This applies on both the level of literal (not synonymous with paraphrasable) statement and that of articulation of what might be termed the formal or representational elements of a poem. In light of that definition it would be difficult to find an Ashbery poem from the period, say, of Rivers and Mountains (1966), of which some sense, no matter how diffuse, cannot be made.
     Ashbery himself has shown himself on several occasions to be as puzzled about the implications of his success as anyone else. Nor should what emerges as bemused humility in interview after interview be viewed as in any way suspect. The Ashbery phenomenon doesn't just appear huge, uncommon and bewildering, it is all of those things, and more. Why shouldn't the "I" at the center of such an unbidden cyclone, culturally speaking, be telling the truth when he confesses in a 1980 Paris Review interview to finding it all a bit hard to process:

When I originally started writing I expected that probably very few people would read my poetry because in those days people didn't read poetry much anyway. But I also felt that my work was not beyond understanding. It seemed to me rather derivative of or at least in touch with contemporary poetry of the time, and I was quite surprised that nobody seemed to see this. So I live with this paradox: on the one hand, I am an important poet, read by younger writers, and on the other hand, nobody understands me. I am often asked to account for this state of affairs, but I can't.

Irvin Ehrenpreis, a dour inspiriter of pieties to which only lip-service was accorded even in the age of Pope, conceded in the course of a discussion of the poet's work up to and including Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror in The New York Review of Books that "There is room in our literature for John Ashbery." But he didn't leave it at that. "The poems in his new book," he went on to add,

are seldom coherent, shapely, or intelligible; neither their sounds nor their rhythms go far to please the ear; they hardly convey the poet's character in the usual sense. Mr. Ashbery may hope to surprise us agreeably with the leaps or turns of his mind from image to insight and back again; and he may challenge us to make the brightest of these connections ourselves. But most of his work will tire nearly all of his readers.

Willing to grant that "this poetry has its design," Ehrenpreis was not at all prepared to allow that just because a will to design was present, all manner of sans dessin else could be granted:

. . . When one has shown that there is purpose in his method, one has not endowed the method with attributes rightfully to be sought in poetry. Among the muddles of our critics is the assumption that if an author has persuasive theoretical grounds for his literary practice, the reader ought to be satisfied that what the man writes is good. There is no logical connection between these propositions; and in Ashbery's work the case collapses of its own weight, because so many readers are dismayed when they try (intelligently and seriously) to enjoy his poems. . . .

Still, quarrel as we might with Ehrenpreis's conclusions, there is less grounds for quibbling when his talk turns symptomatological; and on that score we should look, as he does, at Ashbery's outspoken views on the poet's rather questionable status and reliability in the world. "Ashbery is not so solemn that he misses the absurdity of his enterprise," Ehrenpreis admits. "He knows the visions are illusory, and that his aims contradict one another. Often, therefore, he turns on himself and ridicules the view of the poet as the light of the world."
    In a world where it was only "long ago / The strewn evidence meant something," to stand Shelley on his ear is to fix reality in a gimlet glance. There is no absolute requirement that the poet be "the unacknowledged legislator of the world." In fact, the "mug's game" (Eliot's phrase) that poets play--or poetry as a "superior entertainment" (Eliot again)--becomes conducive to making more rather than less out of life to the extent that the poet meets the blank and pitiless gaze shot back at him by the world with a cold and astringent eye. According to Ehrenpreis--and, again, the views expressed reflect a critic to whom Henry Fielding was a tottering beacon of probity--"the poems in the tradition that prepares us for Ashbery are serious without being conventionally moral. They may delight us, but we say they do more than delight. What then can they accomplish? One answer is that they bring more of reality into consciousness" (italics mine). 
    Postmodern confessional poets brought as much proprietary alienation to the surface in their verse as their withdrawal from ordinary experience would permit. In bringing to the lyric's conjugal bed their own unpressed claims for the droit du Seigneur, they knew just how much to overcompensate in order to align that right's shaky appurtenances with its rites' even shakier justifications. Just what range of qualities this new double standard infused into postwar American verse may be judged from the assay Randall Jarrell conducted on the later poetry of his friend, Robert Lowell. "Stubborn toughness. . .senseless originality and contingency. . .barbarous immediacy. . ." are just a few of the epithets hurled with "this hurts me more than it hurts you" mordancy at Lowell's verse in "Fifty Years of American Poetry" (1963). For Jarrell, friendship clearly stopped at the water's edge.
    Whereas "no poetry is less confessional than Ashbery's," as Ehrenpreis reads it. Preference in his verse for recitative over aria can be viewed in only one way: as a rejection, straight-up, of the inward gaze. It never occurs to Ehrenpreis that though the body imprint of truth is to be found in one place, it might lie elsewhere more often than not. And the truth is that Ashbery likes to avail himself of the swash (and option to buckle) of the casino poet, able to double down on the fortuities of a language game abetted by luck of the draw, mortality-wise. Such opportunistic impressionism-with-a-twist is what Ehrenpreis feels gives the Ashbery poem its peculiarly diaphanous joie de vivre:

. . . the impressions of the poet in the act of composing are precisely what define his work; the rain that is suddenly evocative for him, the music that drifts through the doorway. This shifting assemblage of changing sensations is his substance. He may well have a theme in mind--a person, an object--but he does not normally render or describe it. He merely supplies the phrases, images that reach him as he contemplates the theme, which of course the reader is not asked to discover.

It also imposes, on a phenomenological as well as aesthetic plane, the perspective (attributable to the convexity of the mirror in Parmigianino-esque self-portraiture) that Ashbery has characterized as being "on the outside looking out," a technique whose effect upon the reader is heightened by a deliberate shifting of attention from a poem's motivating occasion to some of the marvelous things fortuitously allowed to surface in the writing of it:

. . .Many times I will jot down ideas and phrases, and then when I am ready to write I can't find them. But it doesn't make any difference, because whatever comes along at that time will have the same quality. Whatever was there is replaceable. In fact, often in revising I will remove the idea that was the original stimulus. I think I am more interested in the movement among ideas than in the ideas themselves, the way one goes from one point to another rather than the destination or the origin.

Such reliance on aleatory events in the act of composition is not uncommon among so-called New York school poets. A much anthologized Frank O’Hara poem titled “Why I Am Not a Painter” had as its sole content an account of the process by which the poem itself came into being through a creative interchange between himself and the painter Mike Goldberg. It's worth quoting in its entirety since its (no less Creeley-esque) "drive, he sd, for / christ's sake, look / out where yr going" ad hoc-ism is so closely akin to the Ashberian method of operation:

        I am not a painter, I am a poet.
        Why? I think I would rather be
        a painter, but I am not. Well,

        for instance, Mike Goldberg
        is starting a painting. I drop in.
        "Sit down and have a drink" he
        says. I drink; we drink. I look
        up. "You have SARDINES in its."
        "Yes, it needed something there."
        "Oh." I go and the days go by
        and I drop in again. The painting
        is going on, and I go, and the days
        go by. I drop in. The painting is
        finished. "Where's SARDINES?"
        All that's left is just
        Letters. "It was too much," Mike says.

        But me? One day I am thinking of
        A color: orange. I write a line
        About orange. Pretty soon it is a
        Whole page of words, not lines.
        Then another page. There should be
        So much more, not of orange, of
        Words, of how terrible orange is
        And life. Days go by. It is even in
        Prose, I am a real poet. My poem
        Is finished and I haven't mentioned
        Orange yet. It's twelve poems. I call
        It ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
        I see Mike's painting, called SARDINES.

The poem O'Hara anecdotalizes was actually composed between June and August in 1949, and takes up just over four pages of his Collected Poems. It is titled "Oranges: 12 Pastorals," and its formal character may be described as either prose or very loose Whitmanian free verse, depending on one's terminological bent. 
    But reverting to Ehrenpreis's rather narrow encapsulation, it should be said that it not only ignores a vast part of Ashbery's poetic output, it ignores some of the best and most interesting things found in it. To be sure, things do change--at least style-wise--after Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Or if not change, then become sleeker, more seamlessly radiant, indeed Whitmanian, even in broad tectonic sheets of discourse like Flow Chart's (1991). Here there's a need to quote at greater length than usual:

We're interested in the language that you call breath,
if breath is what we are to become, and we think it is, the southpaw said.
     Throwing her
a bone sometimes, sometimes expressing, sometimes expressing
     something like mild concern, the way
has been so hollowed out by travelers it has become cavernous. It leads
     to death.
We know that, yet for a limited time only we wish to pluck the sunflower,
transport it from where it stood, proud, erect, under a bungalow-blue sky,
     grasping at the sun,
and bring it inside, as all others sink into the common mold. The day
had begun inauspiciously, yet improved as it went along, until at bed-
time it was seen that we had prospered, I and thee.
Our early frustrated attempts at communicating were in any event
     long since dead.
Yet I had prayed for some civility from the air before setting out, as
     indeed my ancestors had done
and it hadn't hurt them any. . .

Flow Chart is pretextually disposed to treat of Ashbery's mother's death, yet circumvents that pretext, not in order to evade its determining occasion, but to make use of its disruptions and set about caulking spaces importunistically created by her absent presence with reclaiming and compensatory language. Behind the poem's background lament of "How trivial the music" lies the idea of consecrating a place in poetry for the language his mother's life and death gave rise to. There is no compulsion whatever on the part of the poet to find, or otherwise "ad lib-erate," language capable of translating him across a chasm of ennui opened up by her dying. To be sure, boredom yawns, as it does on all such occasions, as a psychic space demanding to be filled; and, indeed, for as long as Ashbery has been penciling in time's bubble spaces with poetry, he has been pinpointing boredom as the last enemy to be conquered, as a zone of enervation in which skirmishes with swoosh-stripers of the Great Plain are permitted, but only if they taper off before pitched battles occur. 
    Anyhow, even allowing, catch as catch can, that "Alvin and the chipmunks made nice ambient music for what [one] was fussing over;" and that in the wake of any such megilla of benign varmints the not altogether together adage, "Repetition makes reputation. / Besides, it's something you can build with," could be made to make do until something meatier came along--until in fact this poet of spread sheets and flow charts could show he'd made his peace with that state of soul which, far from calling down any insidious Baudelairean spectres, insisted rather that he lie down, amid hot dogs and day-old chili, with the leonine hopelessness of eternal recurrence. Boredom, like the organism built to endure its predations, is a tube open at both ends. What enters at the behest of one extremity must somehow accommodate itself to what, by the mot d'ordre of the other extremity, it has been made to become. In short, we are what bores us. Ennui is as much the carte d'identité of today's megalopolitan post-Arcades Project as it was once the passport to spleen of Baudelaire's lecteur, semblable and frère in a City of Light more palpably ancient in some ways today perhaps than Rabelais's or Villon's Paris. What appears below might well have been patched and peeled there between 1955 and 1965, during Ashbery's art-reporting days for the Paris Herald Tribune, though the raw count of its tediums is not associable with any particular city's ambiance:

And flies still tax us with their lesson: when will we give up? In order to
    land on that shred
of inhospitable strand one is forced to jettison certain
much beloved possessions, including, I'm afraid, that key. O if only one
belonged to something,
life would be harder perhaps but we'd have the strength to go along with
    whatever they 
wanted us to say and we'd have rivalry at the end, sure, but cunning as
    well in the abstract
clockface of accusation from the various points of the compass, and who
    knows, if one got
away, how much sicker the other would get? Perhaps not much. Perhaps
    if you had
a little compassion in your yard things would grow staler and the calm
of the original compact wouldn't capsize it, leading to distant benefits and
    premises. . . .

After such knowledge, what equivocation? Surely a fit punishment for having made taffy-pull sentences like these is to be made to serve them--and in some place notably drabber, more rife with disingenuousness even than here, in this harebrained, right-brain Ashberian-model Atlantic City of the faux-poem, where they swive and plummet like oversexed lemmings. Yet Ashbery knows that this is the only sense today's poetry can make, and that he can't for the life of him, as distracted from distraction by distraction as he is, stop making it. (Neither does the fact that making poems like Flow Chart is to him as natural, as apparently uncomplicated as making water, raise his desire level to see his propensities nudged toward diversification.) Which may be why T. S. Eliot's third Quartet, "The Dry Salvages," might seem to some to be echoing through the increasingly empty halls of Ashbery's later verse. Its idiom is, to invoke the terms of Eliot's own phrase from a later quartet, "familiar," "compound" and "ghostly": a form of speech inviting of the reader's sympathies while preserving its aloofness through some recondite ritual of deft equivocation. If a sponsor must be designated for such a form of speech, it would not be someone like Melville, the lies of whose Confidence-Man (from the 1857 novel of that name) hang nastily upon apocalypse, but some lesser hacker into humanity's hard drive, a magniloquent loser for all seasons who, if John Shoptaw's study of Ashbery's work, On the Outside Looking Out (1994), is to be believed, is an anonymous and circumspect "homotextualist," cruising men made out of words in poems fashioned, so far as anyone can tell, out of thin air. 
    But what words and what thin air! The fashioning, though impossible to ignore, seems almost an afterthought, like the cake beneath an icing too exquisite to play second fiddle, even to something delicious in its own right. For this reason no less discriminating a Blue Book than The Castle of Indolence (1995), by that scourge of poetasters Thomas M. Disch, reserves its "highest praise" for Flow Chart. "Alone among contemporary poets," he writes, 

[Ashbery] has succeeded in creating a body of work that defeats the effort of Criticism to preside over the reading of poetry. Ashbery's poetry is vaporous and steamy and eludes the hermeneutical grasp. To understand Ashbery one can only read more Ashbery, and if the insights that accrue to that reading seem somehow insubstantial once one has departed the text, that is not to be wondered at, for Ashbery is the poet laureate of Spaciness, that touchstone of the sixties Zeitgeist that here has found its mandarin apotheosis.

The spaciness is certainly there, but the "sixties Zeitgeist" is somewhat harder to spot, especially since there has never been a "zoned out," Cheech and Chong zaniness about what Ashbery is about. Or at least not since The Tennis Court Oath, a book Ashbery still thinks needed to be written but wishes fervently someone beside himself--or less beside himself than he had been when he wrote it--had. For decades now, critics have been not as much concerned with what makes Ashbery run, as who. If there is a Bloomian strong poet lurking behind the Ashbery modus operandi, he (or she) has yet to be identified. Beyond such obvious and already much discussed influences as W. H. Auden and Wallace Stevens (along with some lesser known French surrealists of the '50s and '60s, the most frequently named of which is Pierre Martory, a personal friend of the poet's, whose work he has on occasion translated), no smoking gun has been found that might point to a ringer in Ashbery's ancestral woods. 
    Actually, he has tried to be forthcoming about such matters (to the extent that they are anybody's business or relevant to the issue of how his work should be valued), and in Other Traditions, his recently published Charles Eliot Norton lectures given at Harvard, the issue of influence is raised in the opening pages of the very first talk, which happens to be concerned with the English Romantic poet John Clare. After much huffing, puffing and pawing of the ground Ashbery does finally manage to charge this overwhelming question, but when it's over far less ground has been covered than dust raised.

. . . [F]irst, I doubt I could add anything of value to the critical literature concerning the certifiably major poets whom I feel as influences. W. H. Auden, chronologically the first and therefore the most important influence, as well as Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Gertrude Stein, Elizabeth Bishop, William Carlos Williams at times, Boris Pasternak, and Osip Mandelstam. . . . Poets who have meant a lot to me at various times are F. T. Prince, William Empson, the painfully neglected English poet Nicholas Moore, Delmore Schwartz (once thought a major poet), Ruth Herschberger, Joan Murray, Jean Garrigue, Paul Goodman, Samuel Greenberg: I could go on, but you get the idea. . . .

The idea is of course that "going on" (in the sense of spinning one's wheels) generates its own ideas, and so gets no one anywhere worth arriving at. An influence is but the fitful tracing of a portal: it will peak early in the fuss made over an "in" poet and tends to disappear from the board before "sell orders" can even get out onto the floor of the Exchange. Influences tend to cancel each other out but some influences are more equal than others, and so wink at the brim more insistently. Elizabeth Bishop, for instance, whom Ashbery is not loath to acknowledge as a corporate muse, seems often to occupy the seat of Chief Inspirational Officer:

        A cold spring:
        the violet was flawed on the lawn.
        For two weeks or more the trees hesitated;
        the little leaves waited,
        carefully indicating their characteristics.
        Finally a grave green dust
        Settled over your big and aimless hills. . . .
                                                ("A Cold Spring")

     Of much greater value to an understanding of how poetry comes into the world is the role played by that "smaller group [of poets] whom one reads habitually in order to get started; a poetic jump-start for times when the batteries have run down. . .poets I have at some period turned to when I really needed to be reminded yet again of what poetry is." And who might they be? Well, to anyone who has been reading Ashbery more or less continually since Some Trees and Rivers and Mountains, their names are likely to come as something of a shock. To cut the suspense short, they are: John Clare, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, John Wheelwright, Laura Riding, David Schubert, and--bonus points in part withheld--Raymond Roussel, "for whom I feel enormous empathy, though I can't say that reading him ever directly inspired me to write. The influence came in a curiously backward and indirect way, so that I was only conscious of it much later, and am still discovering traces of it I hadn't realized were there." Influences matter only when their matter is of little influence. Granted nothing could be more "Ashberian" than that, but damn it, Alfie, what's it all about?


As we've seen, there's no point going to the source for an intelligible accounting of what runs off at this mouth. Complexity, it would seem, lies less in the work itself than in the "murk plectrum" of self-explanation:

Unfortunately, I'm not very good at "explaining" my work. I once tried to do this in a question-and-answer period with some students of my friend Richard Howard, after which he told me: "They wanted the key to your poetry, but you presented them with a new set of locks." That sums up for me my feelings on the subject of "unlocking" my poetry. I'm unable to do so because I feel that my poetry is the explanation. The explanation of what? Of my thought, whatever that is. As I see it, my thought is both poetry and the attempt to explain that poetry; the two cannot be disentangled. . . On occasion when I have tried to discuss the meanings of my poems, I have found that I was inventing plausible-sounding ones which I knew to be untrue. . . (Other Traditions, 1) .

This note of plaintiveness, if not distinctively Ashberian, is plucked from a chord we've heard before. Eliot has sounded it, as has Stevens, Hart Crane, Samuel Beckett and a host of other selectively tongue-tied Esperantists of the Neue Zeitgeist. Those poets who don't sound it tend routinely to be the "No ideas but in things" people, and even they lament, as has Robert Creeley, both in verse and out of it, poetry's resistance to being claimed as occupied territory:

I've said I feel myself to be a poet who is given to write. And I'm even awkward about using that designation, that is, to call myself so, a poet--because I do not feel I have that decision in it. Yet the complexity of the dilemma seems to me a very real one. How shall we understand [William Carlos] Williams' painfully marked insistence just before the close of "The Desert Music":

        I am a poet! I
        am. I am. I am a poet. I reaffirmed, ashamed
        In America, we are certainly not poets simply, nor much of the time.

But in his haste to disclaim Ashbery may have filed his own claim to a fait accompli (largely ignored in America) that has been shaping verse in the United States since the end of World War II. A switching of roles has occurred between poetry and criticism, which American academe's tryst with French Theory over the last 35 years confirms. It used to be criticism's task to run the power grid of interpretation in the arts, and that of poetry, painting, and music to express, articulate, and where possible nail reality, wherever one caught it flicking its tongue or baring its fangs. It is now apparent that what seems foreign, disproportionate, even ugly about much of the verse that got written in this period, having taken off in the flight path of the Whitman revolution, was later diverted, first, through the Poundian rain forest and then, more wrenchingly, the Carolinian outback, home to Black Mountain's foundering fathers (and, in the wake of the expulsion from Eden during the mid-'50s, strict constructionists). Once there, this phenomenon (now no longer a revolution but a fait accompli) found itself gasping on the strand, where the only audible poetic strains (where once the "desert music" of W. C. Williams had wafted) were those of the Beats and their love-children, the rock poets of the '60s. In the wake of these developments and the interregnum they gave rise to, the rather narrow enthusiasms of the youth movement all but put an end to technically articulate poetry's business as usual. In its place was a Berlin wall of sound crescendoing into one disconcerting rock festival after another. This depressing state of affairs continued until the early '70s, when, along with other more promising (if only because more literate) sounds, the sussurant wave-runs of Ashbery and his catamarans, at times almost rivaling the Water Music of Handel or Telemann in sonic elegance, but not infrequently suggesting Peri Bathous played on a water closet and dually conducted by Stockhausen and Cage, could once again be heard over the din. 
     What staves off despair in this Walpurgisnacht of dustbunnies and attendant lint is the gulf--and it's an enormous one--separating the Ceremonial Master of these uneven proceedings from his legion of ink demons and clones. Can anyone doubt that Ashbery, despite whatever else can be said about him, has one of the finest ears since Walt Whitman closed up shop over a hundred years ago? If doubt there be, take a tuning fork to this, "A French Stamp," from the collection titled Wakefulness (1988):

        Of handedness and the Brothers Handedness,
        too often that tale had been told by Yore,
        fifth-century scribe. He liked inking in details.

        If one is a cigarette lighter
        that's lonely, which is lonely. Or a tricycle
        coasting in gales, there is a secret satisfaction

        fins emulate. Here, keep my scalp,
        I'm seeing a pattern here, divestiture of some knave.
        It was likely to be our last onus, this plaid scarecrow
        out of a Braille encyclopedia. Hurry with the milk,
        be here. Fortune placed its tots in escrow. Good to monitor 'em,

        go with the feed. In Manhattan merely
        two minutes to two, moonlit torso returns. Sheesh.
        Some abbey's got him. Let Fido lick
        last year's olive branch. I'm outta here.
        I told you, no way, it's dorsal.

Reacting superficially, the anti-Ashbery claque will no doubt scream "foul" and raise their dog-eared copies of Stein's Tender Buttons (with all their pages uncut) into the air, as though a half-dozen of one were enough to deep-six the other. It would be useless to say to such a rabblement: Yes; of course the poet who wrote "A French Stamp" has Tender Buttons under his belt and probably a good deal more of that unreadable excelsior with which The Making of Americans and other Steinian doorstops are stuffed to exploding. But Tender Buttons as depth-of-field is hardly Tender Buttons interposed as meaning--not to mention the fact that by thrusting the soundstage of Stein's ship-in-a-bottle far beyond her achieved level of word-painting in that 1923 work, Ashbery has made it virtually impossible for anyone to imagine his work sharing the same aural, let alone kinetic, space with hers. Which is not to say they don't share a tropism for what Shoptaw terms the "homotextual," or the "misrepresentative poetics" of encrypting homosexual experience. But take away the attraction to Stein's use of "narrative abstraction" (to borrow another term of Shoptaw's), and it appears that more has been made of Ashbery's having acknowledged in 1957 that Stein's Stanzas in Meditation had furnished him with "a general, all-purpose model which the reader can adapt to fit his own set of particulars" than the superficial commonalities detectable in their styles warrants.
    Still, we're left with the troubling intransigency of Ashbery's poem as text, which, after puzzling over its lacunae and second-guessing its hairpin turns of phrase, remains as opaque as ever. Ashbery would have us substitute this opacity for the grain, the texture of his poem's meaning, to see it as a surrogate for discursive (or, if you like, Wintersian) meaning, which is beyond the capacity of most modern poems to provide. Poetic meaning at present is not merely elusive (Stevens), or allusive (Eliot), or illusive (Williams); it is, in Ashbery's hands, delusive--even Quaalusive--insofar as the entire thrust of what is thought to be "meaning" is a conveying of the impression that in poetry experience is interpretation rather than the other way around. In "A French Stamp" the heterogeneous elements being yoked together (not without some violence, but then there's nothing straight-up "metaphysical" about the way Ashbery juggles intangibles, either) cannot be said to contribute to any overriding metaphor or conceit. They come off as slabs of modality, cut thinly so as to be absorbed painlessly into the membrane of the reader's mood.

        Of handedness and the Brothers Handedness,
        too often that tale had been told by Yore,
        fifth-century scribe. He liked inking in details.

Language, even nonsensical language--which these three lines are not--cannot help but coagulate into clouds of connotation when having no other purpose than setting words and their associations to dancing. Handedness, the Brothers Handedness, even-handedness, back-of-the-handedness, handy-handedness, jerk-of-the-hand to a handful of jerks, jerks in a circle, circle jerk. How far should this sort of thing be carried? Is it possible, once started down this road, to stop? Who knows, but either way, continuing or discontinuing is an oft-told tale, or rather two oft-told tales, and each a tale of yore of necessity a yore-ish tale; but then, what tale isn't? The Brothers Handedness sound sinister in a playful sort of way (or is it playful in a sinister kind of way?), though not at all grim, even if it's hard not to have the Brothers Grimm cross one's mind en route to--where? To the fifth century, perhaps, when Yore, one of its more noted scribes, inked in details as was his wont. (A noted scribe he must have been or how would we know of him 1600 years later?) But wait, haven't we been down a road very much like this before, one slickly traveled by a really smooth postmodern negotiator of road-slicks and the rainbow patches their language lays down--not in poetry, but in the prose of one Donald Barthelme?
     Barthelme's death in 1988 stilled his voice but not its after-echoes, which linger in today's media space as accusingly as ever. Explaining in his essay "Style as Protagonist in Donald Barthelme" how this most gnomic of stylists induced a unique way of writing to find him, Guy Davenport writes:

Innovation begins with a finding. Barthelme had to find an unoccupied space where narrative had not previously been. The visual arts had preceded him; he followed. He would be the Max Ernst of writing. His subject matter would be versions of reality posited by the world--its language, its images, its tacit assumptions, its public being--that he would then inspect with an irony and a wit as diligent as Ernst's.

He then goes on to show, proleptically and in high-definition detail, how the Barthelme sentence got its spots:

The opening sentence of the entry on menstruation (Règles) in Diderot and d'Alembert's Encyclopédie is purest Donald Barthelme. "Les Groenlandoises," it says, "n'ont point de règles." The voice is disembodied, oracular, in full assurance of its authority, and unembarrassed that it is speaking nonsense. For Flaubert, connoisseur of such idiocies, this sentence would have been simple evidence that the Enlightenment frequently talked through its hat. The historian of science sees in this bogus assertion the stubborn persistence of medieval credulity. Now that we have Barthelme's deployment of such sentences, one after another, as if intoned through a surrealist megaphone, we can see in it one of the surest strategies of his art.

     And that of Ashbery, though the "full assurance of its authority" has suffered some dilution at the hands of forces unknown and disadvantages brokered by dilatory opportunism and embalmed cliché. The typical Ashbery utterance (it's not always a "sentence") sounds something like this bit of Forrest Gump-erei, from "Eternity Sings the Blues" (1995): "If I ever found myself here again I'd do something / about fixing the holes in the landscape / and healing the sick, though there's about / as much chance of that as finding a used lottery ticket in a dungheap." Or this, from "Point Lookout" (same year): "For this we must become hedgehogs again, blindly entertaining all the philosophy of light." Each served up without the megaphone, but heavy on intonation, with a side of surrealism. But then there's this, from "Lost Profile" (2000):

        As if the air were pure lightning
        and the earth, its consort, benevolent thunder,
        I can stand and finally breathe.
        Light shrinks from the edges of my fingernails
        and armpits. This is a page that got bound in the diary
        by mistake. It seems we were so happy once, just for a minute.
        Then the sky got clouded, no one was happy or unhappy
        forever, and the dream of the oppressor had come true.

"Lost Profile" lives in a different drawer of the vanity dresser than the other two verse samples, if only because its clichés sound less recycled than made to endure a facelift. Rather than blow smoke rings through the wax lips of American surrealism, the speaker of this canny aside stirs a gallimaufry of Chekhov, Cavafy, Barthelme, Beckett, and other unnamed, even unnameable, literary savors, all without for a moment convincing us that the spent casings of emotion littering the floor are not in fact blanks, or that what we've just read is not an elaborate simulation of regret of no greater moment than a second's second thought. Lynn Keller, citing some of Ashbery's own comments on his verse, writes that "Throughout his long poems [he] is interested in the 'inaccuracies and anomalies of common speech'; with a kind of torquing of usual usage he renews the resources of the banal and clichéd language as he tries to get at 'a general all-purpose experience. . .in which anybody can see reflected his own private experiences without them having to be defined or set up for him.'" 
    Incessant nitpicking (mostly to oneself) over what constitutes happiness or unhappiness, or the precise degree to which one is or is not, from moment to moment, happy, unhappy, or both at once in stale, flat and unprofitable language accounts for much of what the author of Sadness and Guilty Pleasures was content to write off as blague. But he wrote about it as well. So much so and so often that it almost became for him a subject about which he could obsess on or off the fictional page. Starting out as a fictionist just when the tsunami of collegiate postmodernism was making landfall, Barthelme's most experimental work stood at a juncture that Ashbery, abroad during those crucial onset years when the '50s were biting into the '60s and spitting out the '40s, would only reach somewhat later. Paris throughout la dizaine d'années avant '68, with its synergistic cults of the nouveau roman in fiction, la nouvelle vague in film-making, la musique déchaînée of Pierre Boulez and others in music, along with new inroads in painting made by artists such as Jean Hélion and Pierre Bonnard, presented accidental tourists like Ashbery with the brimmingest of full plates. For an American poet caught in the toils of the French avant-garde, but with no pressing need to pursue an academic career back in the States, to be in Europe at this time might have seemed very heaven; but it also meant not being where the action was that would soon reshape--for some therapeutically, for others, violently, even murderously--the home truths of the entire planet. 
    One of the outgrowths of that incredible period of tectonic shiftlessness and meltdown relativizing of values that shook the '60s and '70s, nearly turning what remained of the civilized world into a Jurassic parking lot, was a new breed of poem, unlike any ever seen on this or any other continent. It assumed a metamorphic range of shapes and colors but its signature quality was a hitherto unmet-with consolidation of unpredictability, supercharged performativity, and an indifference to the architectonic norms as blithe as a tensegrity sphere's in a sea of rotundas. Whether left hanging like stray mesons on a nearly blank page of Charles Olson's Maximus VI; or exploding into quotidian Manhattan fractals through whose upendings Frank O'Hara's "Biotherm" blithely coasts; or executing space walks from the module of a Coleridgean stanza linked by umbilical to what even Kubla Khan could not have envisioned, like the Robert Creeley of Words and Pieces; or just hanging out with the home boys of Bleaker Street and trying to square the Circle-in-the-Square with uprooted jive like this:

        The woman with the confused soul keeps calling.
        Was gibt es? Now that you're in Honolulu you've got to live it up
        no matter what kind of grub they throw at you
        on Main Street. O but my past is operatic
        you see, the glitter, wink and shimmer,
        all are in my bones. The hegemony of irrational
        behavior always leaves the by-then-very-determined hoplites astonished,
        they moan in groves. Or do you prefer

        the sea? How about this empty, gravel-encrusted courtyard?
        The sea please. A time of increased understanding.
        Such things as male bonding didn't exist.
        En revanche, ponytails were something small horses wore. . .

Fault such music, if you can. Though wafted in from a farther room, its tight phrasing seems pre-fitted to the ear it strikes. Its title may have been chosen to keep the troops intimidated ("On First Listening to Schreker's Der Schatzgräber," from the 1994 collection And the Stars Were Shining), but a poem exuding this much self-confidence is capable of cutting a formidable swath through the stoutest ranks of suspicion and contempt. Every line seems to radiate with a bravura whose smirk declares, "Meaning or just being doesn't do it for me. After years of watching other poets toss and turn on beds of hot coals or cold nails, I've found something better, something cool that only I can pull off reliably, time after time." Given the number of imitations both outright and subtle that he has consistently flooded the poetry magazines and anthologies with, such a show of flattery in its sincerest form makes it hard to argue that Ashbery, pale Galilean though he may in no way be, hasn't conquered. 
     But how? And why so thoroughly that almost all other mouths seemed stopped with and by an ability to run off at the mouth that reduces the competition to a mere gaggle of Pentecost accountants? What is there about this--

        Life in Japan is one of the most famous with all these
        chairpeople and night stalls brewing
        around a contradiction,
        but the fowler knows his business takes him elsewhere,
        telephoning, with more time to awake in the crystal pageant
        of perplexed symmetries. Doomed because of it? 
        I never get hangovers until late afternoon
        and then it's like a souvenir, an arrangement. . .
                                    ("Works on Paper I," [1994])

--that fears not portly Azcan nor his hoos, whether strutted in the original recipe of an Irvin Ehrenpreis or cock-a-doodle-doed in the "extra crispy" of a James Longenbach? Perhaps the answer to these questions has been staring us in the face and for one reason or another we've not seen it for what it is. It might very well be this: Ashbery has figured out how to hot-wire the willing reader's central nervous system by using the conducting plates and foil of language to bypass all the standard conduits of ignition--contextual recognition, predictable sequencing of "argument," and dictional homogeneity. William Burroughs did it rather crudely with "cut-ups"; Ashbery, being his own cut-up, does it with the smoke and mirrors of what has to be the most finely modulated and tonally sophisticated verbal Musak ever to be piped in to the elevators carrying the high-tech American soul to capitalist Nirvana. It is drawn from every tributary of modern psychographia except the popular or "rube" monoculture whose effluent is TV and Hollywood movies, and which courses through caverns measureless to man, down to the sunless sea of Monday Night Football and the Country Music Awards. It is not only packed to the gills with talk, its gills are stuffed to bursting with all the overbuilt subdivisions of yatter-table talk, shop talk, small talk, talk about talk. The Ashbery page is arguably the noisiest page in all American poetry. If Wallace Stevens was the Loyola of hedonism, Ashbery is the Melanchthon of navel-gazing. But it's all High Table stuff. Even when the talk doesn't center on esoterica like Schreker's Das Schatzgräber or William Byrd, poems like "Unreleased Movie" (from April Galleons) and "Military Pastoral" (from Can You Hear, Bird), in which a discernible shifting down from the arcane occurs, read more as though a high chair were being pulled up to the High Table than the High Table were being deserted altogether. (E.g., the poem "Mutt and Jeff," from And the Stars Were Shining, sports a Hölderlin epigraph.) All of which makes it difficult to tell not when Ashbery isn't writing well--"See How You Like My Shoes" or "The Decline of the West" shows how small a problem that represents--but just what distinguishes good Ashbery verse from his better or best verse. The fastidious reader will experience no minor frustration in trying to figure out how this splendidly tonsured peruke, titled "Free Nail Polish--

        Cool enough. Granted,
        she has beautiful legs, you know.
        Men's thoughts are continually drawn behind
        the apron of her success,
        or to the tank top of her access
        to the secrets of the great and philosophic,
        of the most polite spirits
        that invite these semitropic airs.

 --differs substantially from this layered triumph, "The Laughter of Dead Men":

        Candid jeremiads drizzle from the lips,
        the store looks as if it isn't locked today.
        A gauzy syllabus happens, smoke is stencilled
        On the moss-green highway.

        This is what we invented the suburbs for,
        so we could look back at the lovable dishonest city,
        tears clogging our arteries.

--or this truly unbeatable, knock-your-socks-off boule-de-joie, from the 1988 title poem "Wakefulness":

        Little by little the idea of the true way returned to me.
        I was touched by your care,
        reduced to fawning excuses.
        Everything was spotless in the little house of our desire,
        the clock ticked on and on, happy about
        being apprenticed to eternity. A gavotte of dust-motes
        came to replace my seeing. Everything was as though
        it had happened long ago
        in ancient peach-colored funny papers
        wherein the true law of opposites was ordained
        casually. The book opened by itself
        and read to us: "You pack of liars,
        of course tempted by the crossroads, but I like each
        and every one of you with a peculiar sapphire intensity.
        Look, here is where I failed at first.
        The client leaves. History goes on and on,
        rolling distractedly on these shores. Each day, dawn
        condenses like a very large star. Bakes no bread,
        shoes the faithless. How convenient if it's a dream."

The man who would call what has just been cited "a featureless wordscape with no phraseography to speak of" would, to quote Randall Jarrell, "boil his babies up for soap." He would also have no idea what constitutes poetry in this or any age, regardless of how many hours he has logged in becoming au courant with what is currently chasing the rabbit around the track in poetry circles. 
    It doesn't really matter in Ashbery country whether something is good, better or best. Evolution seems to have banished natural selection from the origin of species. What is inferior within Ashberian verse doesn't muddy the gene pool, it merely falls by the wayside in volume after volume, leaving the viable specimens of his art, none appreciably superior to any other, to gleam in the clearing shared only by their own kind. The marvel is that so many poems have found their way over the years into that clearing. 
    Such verse can be read with equal pleasure in two utterly diverse ways: as literature distended so far toward the extremities of kitsch that its "badness" almost sheds its scare quotes; and as kitsch honed to such a fine pitch of self-parody that it ceases to be kitsch and sits on the ritefully heirless throne of art as regent. Either way it is poetry that vindicates the Eliotic notion (that Coleridge first proposed) that verse need not be fully understood in order to be appreciated or enjoyed. Ashbery, beyond all else, is our most musical poet, and at his best the most musical poet since Walt Whitman, whom he resembles in countless, difficult to articulate, ways. 
    But he is also our most irresponsible poet, in that he is often an ill-user of his own exceptional gifts. When properly clued in to the American pulse he is superb--a master craftsman in league with daemonic powers of a very high order indeed. When determined to dry-hump his muse he comes off as the Delphic Oracle on goofballs, lowballs, highballs; and the result is the balls one would expect from such aides de commode. Ashbery's besetting sin is the distractedness born of nearly compulsive writing. He needs to exercise control over the need to get down by force of will what inspiration fails to provide him with. Lately his verse has shown some evidence of cracking at the seams, of beginning to consume its own muscle mass. It hasn't yet reached the point of running on empty but that can't be too far off, given the frequency with which his chicken coops of verse appear and the increasingly hurricane-like pace at which he hammers them together. Since the mid-'90s the rate of publication of separate volumes of poetry has been close to a book a year, every year, with what seems to be minimal self-censorship of inferior work and adequate revision of more salvageable work. This cannot be good, for him or for us. It is bound sooner or later to make inquiring minds wonder if light so casually cast about is really worth the candle.
   But to end on such a note might seem to slight unfairly a talent as large and as vocally dominating as Ashbery’s plainly is. Any poet who can put poems together by relying heavily on "discovering new poetry in what would ordinarily be considered prose," (in such places as newspapers which, as he confided to interviewers from the New York Quarterly in the early ‘70s, he is addicted to reading); who can admit without seeming at all disadvantaged that "I don’t know exactly what poetic means," "my poetry doesn’t have subjects," and ". . . I don’t read very much modern poetry. I’m quite ignorant of what’s being written now; the poetry I read is mostly poetry of the past, from the nineteenth century back" (same interview); and who can navigate as effortlessly between put-on and master-piecework as Ashbery has over what is now almost four decades, is bound, at the very least, to be controversial.

    No less controversial, certainly, is the viability of that unique local construct, the new American poem, which emerged as a recognizable form only in the 1970s. Unmistakably Yankee as the Coke bottle and as wildly improvisational as a Florida election, its metamorphosis into presently unforeseeable forms may eventually seem so inevitable as to appear to have had planned obsolescence built into it from the beginning. Home is, after all, where you start from, according to T. S. Eliot, and who should know better than Old Possum how inseparable from the possum (or "I can") in America is the res extensa (or ultimate matter) of creative effort—particularly in poetry, where for Eliot at least the relationship between idea and reality, motion and act, conception and creation remains at best, well, Shadowy.
    But it’s the past that is prologue, not the future, which is why it’s so dangerous, not to say futile, to try to predict its twists and turns. Who could have predicted on the basis of the orthodoxy established by The Waste Land (and the near-papal infallibility of its author) the past its brand of modernism now endeavors to live down? And with equal come-uppance meted out by events, who could have foretold the rehabilitation not only of Walt Whitman but of the strain of Americana he sublimely initiated in Leaves of Grass and made the root substance of his innumerable progeny? No doubt the influence of Ashbery will someday seem as lopsided as today it seems unshakeable. What it is unwise to predict with finality is that when it does wane, it will never reconsecrate anew the revolution in poetry that the good gray poet oversaw in a very different time, in a much different Manhattan, and in a wholly different idiom of verse.
    For what is truly unshakeable in all this fiddle is the vision of America that is synonymous with Whitman and the achievement of Whitman as something inseverable from the promise of America. That vision, that promise, and that achievement pass from poet to poet without ever losing the sense of residing within the custodianship of one conservator or another. For now, John Ashbery sits as Whitman-in-residence in the governor’s mansion of American poetry, which means that that custodianship is in his keeping. No one need feel apprehensive about this: if less worthy hands have allowed its lustre to dim from time to time, its links with the past remain secure. As the poet himself remarked in 1980, "I sometimes think that the ‘greatness’ my friends and I used to see in each other’s poetry when we were young had a lot to do with the fact that it was unknown. It could turn out to be anything; the possibilities were limitless, more so when we were at last discovered and identified and pinned down in our books."

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© 2001 Contemporary Poetry Review