A Glint of Bullion Hefted

Where Shall I Wander by John Ashbery, Ecco Press, 2005. $22.95

When even a very fine poet is able to lob twenty-five volumes of verse into circulation in no more than twice that number of years, there are bound to be, as age withers and custom stales, trace-amounts of dross visible amid the threads of gold and silver. Prolificity of that kind is daunting enough just to imagine, let alone bring off with anything resembling sustained panache and aplomb. Thus it should come as no surprise that as regards John Ashbery’s most recent collection, Where Shall I Wander, there should be both bad news and good to report. But having said that, I do (as Austin Powers confesses to Steven Spielberg in the opening frames of Goldmember) have some…thoughts about why reviews of this poet’s more recent work might be tilting from “in every way superb” to “mixed.”

First, the good news. This new book of Ashbery’s continues to be the sort of lean, conviviating machine we’ve grown used to associating with the brand name of this author who yet again demonstrates that he is still capable, even at age 78, of seducing fans and traducing ill-wishers with what has now become a bi-annual vade mecum of solace and replenishment. Though it is now a regular feature of these showcases to have what little in them is new languorously complement this poet’s stylistic ordinarium of moony runes and starry threnodies, a sufficient residuum of virtuosity surfaces in each to justify its presence on the burgeoning Ashbery shelf. That most of its contents are as superb as one might expect, in the aggregate if not in the main, can be confirmed by comparing the number of memorable poems with the wattled throwaways as long on “stop-making-sense” cheekiness as they are long in the tooth. Of whom else’s poetry could it be said—not disparagingly—that enough is as good as a feast, when even the sufficiency in question recurs with a volume able to drown out any smaller talent and limit the assault of tinnitus on the Zeitgeist’s ears to a manageable roar? The feast served up at Ashbery’s table is invariably provisioned with sweetmeats that have never once in a slew of banquets failed to offer visual as well as aural charms to any connoisseur of modern verse whose sensibility isn’t crippled by Ransomian irredentism or the second coming of Auden. Indeed, so often has the unfailing musicality of this poet’s writing in every book from Some Trees all the way to Where Shall I Wander been harped on that the effort to remind readers of it is nearly a perfunctory one—as perfunctory as the verse can itself appear when the intention is less on allowing the excellence of the poetry to luxuriate than on assuring a continued flow of currency from marketing source to originating mouth. Which latter desideratum is, one regrets to say, rather more palpable in this latest collection than at any time in the recent past.[private]

Not to worry, you say? That the sprinklings of Ashberian music are more than ubiquitous enough in this garden of verse to offset any impudence by annuals thrusting rudely between tendril and trellis where flora perennially associated with this eternally afternooning faun abound? True, it’s hard to flat-out deny the truth of this when a poem, even one as elicitous of grace astounding as “Wastrel,” can write its own ticket with aplomb, despite all the simulacra clotting its horizon like ersatz hippies swarming over a Woodstock revival:

Dear spit, the week is turning over
with the world. All is angry shouting outdoors.
I feel like one of St. Ursula’s virgins
taking a last look at shelving rock and tree,
sailing into what must be the ineffable
if indeed it means anything to itself.

Tomorrow the stone judge will be here,
then more and more pioneers,
covering the basin as far as one can see
into blue beginnings. They have their place
in the populations, but are nominally
no more than we, planted here to survey them
and moving backward with sips of the tide.

We knew the tower bridge was jury-rigged,
the spirit spoof a trickle in the eye of God
we behold from a questioning though necessary
distance. In summer it was straw hats and licorice,
which, fading, leave a taste for other novelties
and sundries. It is never too late for stealth,
mourning itself, or the other irregular phantoms.

Amid samenesses that, going back thirty years to Three Poems and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, are summonable as if from a rolodex, while reflexives, able to take us slumming where even Wittgensteinian certainties fear to tread, shift glidingly about like freight cars on a gravy train. That’s what we turn to Ashbery for, even if the music piped through these spheres is not as glibly Webernian as in April Galleons or Your Name Here. Note the behavior of shifters like “it” in phrases such as “if it indeed means anything to itself” whose aimlessness is, if anything, over-paradigmatic—especially when antecedents fail to enclose their referents in a secure embrace. (With that last “look at shelving rock and tree,” just what is it that sailing into “the ineffable”?) In other sentences as well, places, verbals and nominals, confabulating in avoidance of the poem in hand’s grammatical tide (“They have their place / in the populations, but are nominally / no more than we, planted here to survey them . . .”), occasionally fail to make the grade from tributary to mainstream. Rather than eddy suggestively within their own limpid pool they swirl and swish in a backflush of arbitrary rumination, mirroring the poet’s no longer quite so gleaming evasions which, linked non-compoundingly “two-gether” (“It is never too late for stealth, / mourning itself, or the other irregular phantoms”), pair off like loose connectors in a singles bar.

Why don’t infernal recurrences such as these matter more than they do? Because Ashbery discovered, as indeed Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and others with distinctive styles to their credit did before him, that to be late in age and manner is necessarily to court the predictable—but with an eye ever wary for the chance, previously missed, to put more characteristically an earlier elision en passant or a hair of the dog that bit some previously published poem. There is nothing at all reprehensible in either making amends for a prematurely unhanded sleight or airing a hangover long after the statute of limitations has rendered such gestures moribund. All that is needed—and Ashbery has always had it to burn—is the courage to see dogpaddled, if necessary, one’s masterstrokes across the finish line with as much finish (and as little mere shellac) as distinguished the best of one’s lines in the past.

None of which totals up to self-embarrassing repetitiveness or to coasting the downslope of blague to uninterrupted wipe-out. What else is “style” over the length and breadth of a career than the ability to keep one’s high-step graceful as energy and the and the jeunesse of being splendidly doré falter? Singing the “tattered coat upon a stick” is not for everyone, any more than are the sublime wheezings of the quaternaried Eliot at the end of his sexual as well as his spiritual tether. Blue-chip securities like these are as non-negotiable as they are non-transferable, and this remains true whether the holdings in question are locked away in a verse drama’s velveteen recesses or tucked into an ancient mattress as averse to verse as The Confidential Clerk or The Elder Statesman. “Frost at midnight” may be a pose resorted to when no more than a possibility of unearned dividends promises postponement of poetic bankruptcy if only for a while, but as with Coleridge and the grizzled author of “Take Something Like a Star”—Frost “at midnight,” par excellence—such stances sustain the circum of one go-round but no more. Better by far to keep grizzledness at bay with the Rogaine gleaming triumphantly from such tonsured gloriosi as our own Prester John’s “Wolf Ridge”:

Attention, shoppers. From within the inverted
commas of a strambotto, seditious whispering
watermarks this time of day. Time to get out
and, as they say, about. Becalmed on a sea
of inner stress, sheltered from cold northern breezes,
idly we groove: Must have
been the time before this, when we all moved
in schools, a finny tribe, and this way
and that the caucus raised its din:
punctuation and quips, an “environment”
like a lovely shed. My own plastic sturgeon
warned me away from knowing. Now look at the damage.
You can’t. It’s invisible. Anyway, you spent his love,
swallowed everything with his knives,
a necessary unpleasantness viewed from the rumble seat
of what was roaring ahead.

I want to change all that.
We came here with a mandate of sorts, anyway
a clear conscience. Attrition and court costs
brought you last year’s ten best. Now it’s firm
and not a bit transparent. Everybody got lost
playing hide-and-seek, except you,
who were alone. Not a bad way to end the evening,
whistling. They wanted a bad dinner,
and at this time a bad dinner was late.
Meatloaf, you remembered, is the third vegetable.

What’s special, even unique about this poem, is its assuredness. Put aside for the moment the sheer blasé perspicuity of its off-the-wall-isms, the precision with which Ashbery delimits the districts—always to a degree outlying—of his frame of reference’s ulterior referentialities, and this becomes clear. “Strambotto,” “finny tribe,” “plastic sturgeon,” to cite at random three items that could be said to underwrite such a stretch, all pull in separate directions and in so doing exert a torque upon context that appears wittily disproportionate—(it isn’t)—to the torsion displaced by cultural markers careening with seemly poise past the average interpreter’s reach and ken (it’s only seeming, remember; they don’t). The first reference sends one scurrying to an Italian dictionary; the second to databases for oddbeat cultural histories like Hugh Kenner’s The Counterfeiters: An Historical Comedy (1968); and the third to gag compendia of the sort Random House publisher Bennett Cerf made a hobby of editing decades ago. What do all of these have in common? Well, at first glance, not much, give or take a lowballer’s unregenerate sense of threshold as to just where the SAI (the Scurry Alarm Index) might raise its red flag in a poetic mine field of quibbles and bits, and a willingness to scud—if only for chuckles—the same Big Kahuna surfed to a nicety in Kenner’s The Counterfeiters, to the effect that poetspeak predictably wipes out whenever conjurative abstractions are called upon to corral what taxonomists should be allowed in peace to arondissement-alize into packets of Bouffonian and Mendelian monads.

Take “finny tribe,” for instance. This is third-rate Augustan poetspeak for fish taxonomized without so much as a gesture toward genus or species, which is to say, distinguishing feature or singularizing detail. In short, the water-breathing craniate vertebrate is in such phrases departicularized of kinship to no more than a swoosh stripe having to reach up to qualify even as Lévi-Straussian bivalve. Clearly, whichever “shover of the queer” in the age of Johnson coined it ceded neither a jot nor tittle to useful attribution or descriptive memorability. As a tag, it survives only in Anthologies of Bad Verse such as D. B. Wyndham Lewis’s and Charles Lee’s The Stuffed Owl, where rhapsodics of that kind are accorded the only slice of posterity they will ever know. But then, who but a John Ashbery would think to furnish such fixtures of the faux-poetic—at best, Linnaean hopefuls pratfallen on hard times in having run afoul of this banana peel of fact or that complicating its tranche de vie—with their own Madame Toussaud’s to wax waning and disembodied in?

For wax eloquent on the paper trails left by waning Ashbery’s rehashings of hash have always engagingly done—sebaceously, when reliquaries encysted in more tombeaux than we—if not he—might care to revisit are being dedicated, and gleamingly when the matter on track is clicking on all servers like a search engine downloading the secrets of the universe. He is unquestionably at his best when, as in “Novelty Love Trot” and “When I Saw the Invidious Flare,” what is being waxed to a transcendent sheen are those lusterless experiences which inexperience views with utter confidence as unsalvageable. By that is meant experiences which seemed, through no fault of the human placeholders having sleepwalked through them, to have circumvented, while the somnambulist episodes were occurring, the very life-giving randomness and anonymity now rendering them present and recallable. Thus can what was long thought to be irretrievable be, through the agency of verse, magically reconstituted. It is this, and rather less than this, that accounts for the “more” which “More Feedback” finds in those haruspications whose fate is to scry in the wilderness:

. . . Our work keeps us
up late nights; there is more joy
or sorrow than in what work gives.
A little boy thought the raven on the bluff
was a winged instrument; there is so little
that gives and says it gives. Others
felt themselves ostracized by the moon.
The pure joy of daily living became impacted
with the blood of fate and battles.
There is no turning back, the man says,
the one waiting to take tickets at the top
of the gangplank. Still, in the past
we could always wait a little. Indeed,
we are waiting now. That’s what happens.

In other places and in other poems Ashbery has acknowledged the unkillable posthumousness of what time and the day have relegated to the Boot Hill of recollection to which all things cruised rather than assiduously courted ultimately repair. Such acknowledgement is usually couched in Ashberian pathos which is, for all practical purposes, indistinguishable from Ashberian bathos, since in the disco of unrelinquishable emotions where conversion is the currency of mute exchange, smartmouthing is the flip side of grief. Viz. “Composition”:

We used to call it the boob tube,
but I guess they don’t used tubes anymore.
Whatever, it serves a small purpose after waking
and before falling asleep. Today’s news—
but is there such a thing as news,
or even oral history? Yes, when you want to go back
after a while and appraise the accumulation
of leaves, say, in a sandbox.
The rest is rented depression, available only in season
and the season is always next month,
a pure but troubled time.

That’s why I don’t go out much, though
staying at home never seemed much of an option.
And speaking of nutty concepts, surely “home”
is way up there on the list. I feel more certain about “now”
and “then,” because they are close to me,
as I am with them. I like to call to them,
and sometimes they reply, out of the deep business of some dream.

On almost the other hand, Ashbery can work a surprise out of an ostensibly barren patch of briars and dwarf cactus. What emerges as no clearer than mud in some of the lesser amalgams of Ashberian Wunderkindischen schmerz that dot earlier collections manages in the close-to-oversimple titular near-prose poem of the present volume to strike the elegiac note sounded in the title Where Shall I Wander (sans question mark) itself, but translucently and with the welling Fare thee of a serene and becalming envoi, while never for moment ceding so much as a square rod to the poet’s own wiseacre letch for mis-matchmaking:

for though we wander like lilies, there are none that can placate us, or
not at this time. Originally we were meant as a backdrop for
“civilization,” the buses and taxis splurging along ring roads, anxious
to please customers, though the latter proved to be in short supply.
Like so many figure-ground dilemmas, this was resolved with
moderately pleasing results for all concerned. Time’s arrière pensée floats
down from on high, settles near our ankles, confirming our brush with
whatever. The ensuing uproar allows us to take French leave of the
other swiftly departing guests, to achieve maximum freshness once the
door has closed and the great caesura of the sky, twitching with stars,
fixes its non-committal gaze on us, enabling us to stand erect and inhale
hugest gusts of astringent air. We are aware that we are doing something
and are thus prepared to follow the event’s traces as far as need be,
beyond the sea and the mountains and the ridge pole at the world’s end
and the attendant generations.

At but one moodily altering time, and—if one’s luck holds—for a mood-altering while as well (it is Ashbery’s wont to suggest), the closing of rents in time’s fabric might just allow to enter that theatre of the soul where, in one’s senior years, Proustian mumbledy-peg is no longer played before houses no longer packed with one’s old cohorts and claques, but before a Coleridgean peanut gallery from which sounds of second childhood float endlessly above the chorus of Lost Boys mooning their adolescence (having persisted well past the late forties and early fifties) into the record books. As unwilling as an unhouseled phantom to let the living live where it itself is no longer able to, this gaggle of voices, in refusing to die, paradoxically provide him with a way to go on. For if their Eumenidean chant does not quite make possible the knitting of a seriously aging poet’s heart’s wounds, they at least make it possible to purl some sort of closure out of dropped stitches.

The mending of tattered coats by increasingly stick-figured poets has been Ashbery’s consuming project for some time now, and it is not all that different from trying to stave off, for as long as possible, becoming the last meal of one’s own terminal poems at career’s end. Indeed, it is the nature of that thing which we now recognize to be Ashbery’s hallmark creation, the famous “stop making sense” poem (as he and The Talking Heads jointly described it) to frame the world not in ochres and duns autumnally wrenched from summers whose sedge has yet to wither from the lake and birds stop singing, but to subject American verse to a mood swing rather more upbeat than its customary winter-default setting, which is to say one more perspicacious, if not, strictly speaking, more bright. Caught up in moments of force along whose lines unresolved feelings and emotions acquire a life beyond the pull of abstract geometricals, the poet who gave us such dumbshows sans Hamlet as As We Know and Flow Chart is not content, as unfriendly critics continue to insist, to follow his own materia poetica around the bend in predictable poem after predictable poem. Letting the world walk again in splendor without too obvious a prosthesis giving rise in Hegelian fashion to a matching artificiality given a leg up is how Ashbery sees the modern poet earning his per diem without having to petition or sue for it. When the cylinders of inspiration are turning over smoothly and times are flush (Ashbery has frequently confided in interviews how seldom these ducks line up as desired), poets can afford to hedge their bets and batten upon mere triumphs of form just to see their cachet kicked up a notch or two. That way lies awards, prizes, grants—indeed, all the emoluments that make life in a hall of mirrors the literary narcissist’s wet dream it has so obsessively become. Today’s poets staring down the gun barrel of certain if not imminent disappearance, can either eat, drink and sleep denial or they can accept the inevitable and put the singing of last things first on their personal agendas. Though their walk of fame may have led them from tacky star to tacky star, still, the constellar points of light dotting one “New and Selected Poems” after another (resisting as long as possible the lure of a “Collected Poems”) must not give way to the self-immuring stance’s Brunhildean tomb. Pascal’s teratoidal dismay at being lost in space to all but the unrelenting cold must, along with other dead ends coincident with hardening of the arteries, be sent packing. If not, Crazy Jane’s visionary seniority will very surely morph into Typhoid Mary’s bloodless cackle.

All of this Ashbery manages to convey without any of his younger self’s weakness for featherdusting—think of such early classics of “now I see it, now you don’t” as Rivers and Mountains’s [1966] “Clepsydra” or “The Skaters”—or at least without too distracting a surfeit of it playing about the already dangerously busy fluster of the verse. His current implements are an impressionist’s brush and an expressionist’s palette, which brings us, by a not so circuitous route after all, to the bad news regarding Where Shall I Wander alluded to at the outset of this review. For some time now, beginning around the time of Wakefulness and becoming ever more prominent in Girls on the Run and Your Name Here, this poet’s output has been evincing a decreased input from those deep springs which contributed so refreshingly to April Galleons’ and Hotel Lautréamont’s overall water table. More recently, each new collection has brought with it fewer fresh amplitudes of style, more redolences of previous volumes’ forced march through the same old terra infirma.

Too many Ashbery poems of late seem cluttered with afterimages of old poems brought forward, as if the poet were engaged in converting the output of the last twenty years into an ongoing variorum edition of his work as a single ongoing poem. Over and over, the same old darkness is made wryly visible through the same illusions wrought by black lighting (note the almost parodically cinematic cross-cutting used in “Lost Footage”) and trick foregrounding of eternal recurrences (“Tension in the Rocks” fawns over its campy turns like a dotard riffling through old issues of Photoplay). So familiar has this routine of trail mix-by-owllight become that even Hansel and Gretel could track its dejecta membra all the way back home. To put the matter bluntly, and to a degree disconcertingly: It’s becoming tougher and tougher to single out the bad Ashbery poems from the good and vice versa. Not impossible, just tougher. We know, for example, that the following is not just good, but superlative Ashbery, even on the poet’s worst hair days:

Sweet food, I lap you up
as from a vessel of kindness.
We “unpack” paradigms of
unstructured mess. Leave us alone this day.

I’d like to write you about all this.
Similarly, I’d like not to have to write
about all the things we are
and never could be: the hereafter of things.

Or so it seemed, walking the plank
of every good thing
toward the tank of carnivorous eels
singing, chiming as we go

into substracted Totentanz. . . .

“Capital O” for “outstanding,” no question. Likewise this, from “Like Most Seas”:

The cellos offer appropriate pithy fare
to the violas, who aspire to something higher,
not, as it turns out, on the map. We walk the familiar avenue
into the city, and a few raindrops
tickle the leaves overhead. Down here it is mostly dry
and unserious. On disputed ground right now
truant officers pronounce the schools sound. Yay!
And the dog catcher has announced his retirement
by the end of August. Spaced not too far
from each other, the bridges resemble eyeglasses.
Space needles lean into the breeze. . . .

Every beat, every demisemiquaver of the familiar Ashbery music is in place, secure in its own providential eurhythmics and ours, so long as we keep reading with an ear if not as accurate as the poet’s (whose is?), then not too numbed by acquaintance with lesser poets’ tone-deafness to fail to detect perfect pitch when we’re in the presence of it. But, my God, what are we to do with stuff that sounds and infuriates by signifying nothing that hasn’t been dragged through Ashbery’s paysage démoralisé a hundred times or more:

That his landscape could have been the one you meant,
that it meant much to you, I never doubted,
even at the time. How many signifiers have you?
Good, I have two. I took my worries on the road
for a while. When we got back little cherubs were nesting
in the arbor, below the apple tree. We were incredulous,
and whistled. The road came back to get them
just as darkness was beginning. . . ?

And is there any reason why this, too, should not be added to same plaguey bill?

Questions about the timing
intruded. The last client
before dawn was seen at a certain
distance. Then they brought up

the whole order of belonging.
Seems we weren’t welcome despite
Having occupied Hollyhock House
For generations upon generations.

Then a more remote client raised “issues”
closer to one, like a warm breeze from the cape,
seen to oscillate in an argument—
vexed particles. The captain was really sad

about that one. He came selling articles
door to door, from time to time. A personage
much beloved and little thought of. . . ?

One is reminded in reading these of the betrayal Randall Jarrell felt when contemplating how his beloved Auden had declined from a purveyor of vintage Chambertin to one of vin-all-too-ordinaire. The poet, once capable of bringing light to all things subfusc and dim had, in Jarrell’s opinion,

bureaucratized his method about as completely—and consequently as disastrously—as any efficiency expert could wish. It is a method that can be applied to any material: a patented process guaranteed to produce insights in any quantities. The qualities, unfortunately, cannot be guaranteed. The law of diminishing returns sets in very quickly; the poet’s audience (one of the members of which is the poet) is as easily fatigued for incongruity as for an odor, and the poet has to supply larger and larger quantities that have less and less effect. The reader has seen in my earlier quotations many examples of Auden’s use of this method; there exist enough examples for several generations of critics . . . (“Changes of Attitude and Rhetoric in Auden’s Poetry”)

The first quote is Bellevue confidences pumped almost without edit into the poet’s word processor, while the second brings to mind a Sloppy Joe rendition of Bob Dylan sprechstimme. For ease of distinction, let us designate these two faces of the poet Ashbery One and Ashbery Two. An easy way to slip the knot of difference between these two hypostases is to posit two poets, the second being but a monotonous nodding acquaintance of the scintillating and wholly assured craftsman who has given us such masterpieces as “Self-Portrait in A Convex Mirror” and “Gorboduc.” Ashbery One remains forever beyond the reach of Ashbery Two, emulatively speaking, and Ashbery Two exists to funnel the desultory idiom into which Ashbery One freely slips when tiredness, diffidence, or a Mickey Finn concocted of both is slipped to him as the perk due the famous poet too woozy or snoozy to get it up for those discerning enough to be able to tell whether they are being addressed by Ashbery One or Ashbery Two. What on earth, one wonders, could possibly possess Ashbery One to allow his drab, tin-eared and garrulous alter id a voice in determining which of his poems make the final cut in book after book? What on earth, one wonders, possesses Ashbery One to allow his drab, tin-eared and garrulous alter id a voice in determining which poems make the final cut in this collection or that? True, Ashbery Two constitutes but a recessive gene within the overall DNA of Ashbery One, but still . . . Ah well, knowing isn’t everything; where would we store what we couldn’t reduce to information? I suppose in such matters one has to be content with vague mantras of the sort endlessly intoned in Shakespeare in Love by Richard Burbage—”It’s a mystery.”

But, again, let me emphasize that what has been treated like saltwater taffy here is little more than a tendency—a tropism, if you like—to autopilot the odd poem onto a runway that is most convenient to hand and least tricky (in the non-hermetic sense) to negotiate, to permit diffidently achieved pieces like “O Fortuna,” “Dryness of Mouth,” and “The Red Easel” to rub elbows beyond the cheap seats with first-rate ones such as “In Those Days,” “Capital O” and “Lost Footage.” To make this long story as short as possible, I am challenging the conventional view that Ashbery’s having found a way, in collection after collection, to produce the Ashbery poem to spec is a devotion consummately to be wished for in the practice of major poets, even if that “to spec” adduces a higher poetic standard than that targeted by many other notables of the art of poetry. Few would claim that Ashbery has grown much nor deepened as a poet over the last decade or so. An enviable peak was attained between Flow Chart and Wakefulness, but since then he has mostly occupied a secondary slope on the Everest of his own talent. An easing into neutral has become clearly discernible, and though such things routinely afflict poets in their sunset years, Ashbery’s ease of production suggested he might prove a superb exception to declination’s iron rule. Certainly, poems like the marvelous “Interesting People of Newfoundland” (read not long ago by the poet on NPR’s “Weekend Edition”) are becoming fewer, and casually repetitious fillers like “In the Time of Cherries” and “The Injured Party” (to cite two more clinkers an Ashbery cyborg could have spat out) much less far between than was noticeable previously.

Even so, there need be little agonizing in thoughtful quarters over the ever-so-slight slippage to be detected in books like Where Shall I Wander and its proximate siblings. The diminution in verve and resolve seems less germane than autochthonous to the revised geography of Ashbery’s reputational habitat. He is surely every bit the national resource he always was, just a trifle foreshortened in the shanks and shrinkwrapped in the girdable loins. But this is natural and should not be mourned as an irreversible sign of losing it. For all the agent provocateur-like dandling in the lap of Dada perpetrated by this poet since the appearance, almost a half-century ago, of Some Trees (1956), his work has maintained itself, more or less consistently, as the masque of reason amiably cavorting behind a mask of unreason it was cleverly designed to be. For all the hue and dernier cri to the contrary, Ashbery was never one of them—by which I mean his was always a force which was committed to the conservation of rites the newly historicizing left had long abandoned to quaintness and the museums of the avant garde. Risking ridicule for liking him, the recognoscenti treasured him as the one true thing the clown risorgimento going by the name of “postmodernism” swept up into its retreating spotlight. Had the misstep taken by Ashbery in the ’60s with The Tennis Court Oath not been made, he might not have had a compass reading on which to choose between a future course leading out from Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror to Three Poems and beyond and one emerging out of Houseboat Days heading for the endless doldrums of Shadow Train and A Wave. A brief sojourn in Circe’s ingle inured him to spells that had many younger poets in that decade salivating over Poet in New York by Lorca for all the wrong reasons. That Ashbery was true blue when formalism (to which the very name Ashbery was anathema) was everywhere tanking and heading readerlessly into the red, went entirely without saying (unless of course one’s knees jerked autonomously in the direction of Little Gidding).

Well, on the strength of this, his twenty-fifth contribution to the hedge fund that is American poetry, all can rest assured that John Ashbery continues to inhabit the truth of his original cerulean and the airy nothingness to which his inimitable truth is beat. It is only in remote corners of poetry’s empurpling distance that red patches can be seen streaking the blue. So, while the likelihood of a “red state” alert remains as negligible a fear factor as the “Code Red” that asteroids hurtling toward Earth from any direction are assigned by the media, Ashbery watchers might want to keep their own eyes peeled for obvious signs of redness at the eye of this poet’s widening depression. My advice? Read the red on the horizon as a prognostication of fair weather and go for the book with reservations shelved. For beauty of verbal music alone, Where Shall I Wander not only pulls its weight but adds a surplus of pleasure, if glint of bullion hefted and pressed can properly dispel your heebie-jeebies[/private]

About James Rother

James Rother studied at McGill University and the University of California at Santa Barbara. His critical work has appeared in Contemporary Literature and the American Book Review. He is a professor of literature at San Diego State University.
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