mong literary arts, poetry places the greatest emphasis on the organization of the musical effects of language: rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, and onomatopoeia, along with such elements as ambiguity, and even exuberant nonsense. It is also perhaps the only literary art that may be enjoyed for its sound even before its meaning is apprehended. We encounter riddles nearly impossible to unknot, stanzas in unfamiliar argot or dialect, multiple languages, jargon, and nonce words. We can listen without hearing more than melody. Even poems that seem to make perfect sense on first blush may later become menacingly difficult to pry open.
Poets struggle to satisfy the deities of both sound and sense, and I believe that the best poetry manages to balance them in a memorable and unique way. Pop singers lure us with lovely lines about love that mean nothing at all—“shoo be doo wop” and “coo coo cachou”—while journalists jot unmelodious, but perfectly lucid, and forgettable, paragraphs. Since the start of the 20th century, poets have used a variety of strategies to delay, complicate, or entirely refuse meaning, so much so that it has become one of the ways we identify poetry as such.
Popular from the Victorian era, and revitalized by the psychedelic 1960s, nonsense verse renders sense syntactically while remaining devoid of overall or literal meaning. Take, for instance, Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter”:
The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright—
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.
Nonsense poets, from Edward Lear to John Lennon, take sound for granted, since they’re typically writing traditional verse, but the sense, or slanting thereof, is where they sometimes work wonders.
On the far side of the spectrum is sound poetry, a phonetic art that lies between musical and poetic composition, in which syntax is strained to its limits or essentially jettisoned. Frequently devoid of literal meaning, it ranges in quality from briefly diverting squibs and charming measures to utterly chafing assaults. With roots in Futurism and Dadaism—forms of expression intended to be revolutionary and decisively “new”—sound poetry flourished as a branch of Concrete Poetry in the 1960s and continues today, with practitioners such as Christian Bök, a Canadian experimental poet born in 1966.
Hugo Ball proclaimed: “I created a new species of verse, ‘verse without words,’ or sound poems.” At the cradle of Dadaism, Cabaret Voltaire, in 1916, he recited
gadji beri bimba
glandridi lauli lonni cadori
This sounds like an unknown language, but it is intentionally meaningless. Ball sought to separate sound from meaning. Long after the heady days of Ball and other practitioners like Marinetti and Kurt Schwitters, Christian Bök wrote in his 1994 book Crystallography:
One may doggedly pry meaning from these lines, but what is withdrawn will be far from intelligible in any obvious sense. The double iambic “altazimuth” is a mount one would find supporting a telescope. This indicates that we are looking at something, perhaps cosmic. In one of its several meanings, which include the power to entice, the iambic “allure” can refer to the galleries of a clerestory, the upper level of a Roman basilica or nave of a Romanesque or Gothic church, where one would find stained-glass windows that allow light to pass through but only to illuminate their own patterns. “Outshone,” another ocular hint, begins a vowel shift from the unrounded “A” to the rounded “O” picked up in the following lines with “oneiric,” referring to a dream, and “oceanarium,” a large aquarium. The lines cohere musically, and the images they conjure maintain a vague relationship, implying some majestic scene, but they are too clotted to afford any literal meaning. We must accept that meaning is peripheral, at best, and wrung out only with great difficulty and imprecision. Music aside, this is poetry as Mensa quiz; in other words, not enjoyable for most readers, though enlivening to hear at times.
Some poetry seems to verge on the nonsensical or simply baffling at first, but reveals itself through patient reading (and aid of scholarly annotation). For instance, the ferociously complex, hieratic modernism of Ezra Pound’s Cantos repels all but the most determined readers. The Cantos combine multiple languages, both living and dead, along with archaisms, bits of partially-digested philosophies, obscure classical allusion, color symbolism, canned histories, sweeping historical canvases, and exceptionally private imagery, much of it in fragments. It reads from the start as disjecta membra. There is no denying the beauty of the Cantos in parts, particularly the first thirty or so, taken line for line, but their success as poems is still hotly debated, partly due to the considerable levies Pound placed upon his readers.
By way of example we may listen to lines from Canto XXXIX without, at first, hearing much of anything. It is a celebration of fertility and spring in which Pound summons ancient vegetation rites:
Sumus in fide
sub nocte . . . .
there in the glade
To Flora’s night, with hyacinthus,
With the crocus (spring
sharp in the grass)
Fifty and forty together
ERI MEN AI TE KUDONIAI
Betuene Aprile and Merche
The Latin of the first three lines translates as “We have the protection / and girls, let us sing / beneath the night.” The Hebrew translates as “In the spring the quinces,” and the 14th-century English as “Between March and April” (the following line, in the original lyric, “Alisoun,” is “When spray begins to spring”). It is not immediately clear why Pound used fragments from several languages here, except perhaps to indicate the universality of spring and rebirth across cultures. He may have also meant to symbolize through fragments the suspension of ritual and fracturing of community in what he viewed as a fraudulent and dishonest modern era.
Surely his early readers, without benefit of decades of annotation or fluency in so many languages, took wild guesses at the significance of such lines. Additionally, one would be expected to hear in “hyacinthus” not only the Mediterranean flower Pound may have seen outside his window, but also the divine hero who served as tutelary deity of one of the principal Spartan summer festivals, the Hyacinthia, part of which celebrated his rebirth as Apollo Hayakinthios, thus fused with his lover Apollo. All this, and much more, in a mere ten line prelude to a larger poem that is itself part of a sequence that is itself a segment in a grandly ambitious, open-ended epic. This is a highly deliberate, intricate, and sophisticated method of writing, but it is not, in most cases, impossible to discern its meaning, given time and study. Such poems are best appreciated only after repeated readings and critical glosses allow a gradual accretion of fuller meaning. They reward the reader in ways impossible to achieve in a single burst of instant comprehension. Such poetry is, by definition, an acquired taste. Still, the passage’s most important quality is its appealing sound. That is what makes it poetry.
This brings us to another acquired taste, though one acquired by quite a few these days: John Ashbery. Ashbery grew up in the age of modernism and can be classified as high postmodernist. He never projects a great deal of sound for the sake of sound (that would be vulgar), and he tends to avoid conventional sense beyond the unit of a basic sentence or three (one may find exceptions, not surprising given the astonishing quantity of poetry he has published). His poetry is too cool, in every sense of the word, for much in the way of alliteration or rhyme, but it would be unfair to suggest that he cares nothing for sound. His language is usually disarmingly simple. He writes (with what may be sham simplicity) in “Paradoxes and Oxymorons,” from his 1981 collection Shadow Train, that this “poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.”[i] His language is demotic and straightforward, conversational, intermittently pastoral or dreamy, but it begins to unravel line by line, as superfluous words clog lines, and threads of feeling fray. He introduces incomplete or frustratingly impossible images, and trains of thought begin to swerve and wobble, like those of a distracted drunk, as we find in “Mottled Tuesday,” from his 2007 collection A Worldly Country:
Something was about to go laughably wrong,
whether directly at home or here,
on this random shoal pleading with its eyes
till it too breaks loose, caught in a hail of references.
I’ll add one more scoop
to the pile of retail.
Hey, you’re doing it, like I didn’t tell you
to, my sinking laundry boat, point of departure,
my white pomegranate, my swizzle stick.
We’re leaving again of our own volition
for bogus patterned plains streaked by canals,
maybe. Amorous ghosts will pursue us
for a time, but sometimes they get, you know, confused and
forget to stop when we do, as they continue to populate this
fertile land with their own bizarre self-imaginings.
Here’s hoping the referral goes tidily, O brother.
Chime authoritatively with the pop-ups and extras.
Keep your units pliable and folded,
the recourse a mere specter, like you have it coming to you,
awash with the new day and its abominable antithesis,
OK? Don’t be able to make that distinction.
This poem is delightful in parts, overflowing with juvenile playfulness: “my sinking laundry boat, point of departure, / my white pomegranate, my swizzle stick.” If extracted, or unanchored, from the larger, drearier poem—which feels pushy and agitated—such endearing surrealisms would disappear into thin air, a ghostly spume. Adam Kirsch has suggested that Ashbery is a Romantic at heart, producing unpleasant and confusing patches of poetry in order to emphasize the childlike wonder of certain lines that rise and vanish like moments of beauty and contentment in our lives. Ashbery does not himself make this distinction, though. He treats obscure and even opaque portions of a poem no differently from the more gratifying, or cooperative, ones. Perhaps he fears that if something is too easy, it may also be construed as dull. As he puts it, “a poem that communicates something that’s already known to a reader is not really communicating anything to him, and in fact shows a lack of respect.” He likes it when a poem puts up a fight.
“Mottled Tuesday” ends with a peculiar imperative that reads like an ars poetica: “awash with the new day and its abominable antithesis / OK? Don’t be able to make that distinction.”[ii] This could be his way of suggesting that knowledge of a damaged past need not scuttle aspirations for an idealized future, that the two must always mingle in the mind of the poet and are impossible to separate. Once written down, the Platonic ideal of the poem is crushed by the weight of its own imperfections, the arbitrariness that underpins language itself. What this demonstrates is that an Ashbery poem, though lacking evident unity and purpose, may yet be analyzed for traces of meaning, however unsatisfactory they may feel at first. The poem is not meaningless, in other words, though it defiantly evades our attempts to cage it. In fact, the poem may not be intended to stand alone at all, as we expect lyric poems to. Ashbery commented in a 1984 Times of London interview “I don’t look on poetry as closed works. I feel they’re going on all the time in my head and I occasionally snip off a length.”
So, what’s the point of it all? Is the poem mimetic? Does “Mottled Tuesday” reflect a sense of disorientation and befuddlement that defines the modern age? Is it a thought-experiment devised to counter attempts at rational meaning? Are we being thrown in on the deep-end of an irrationalist creative impulse? It is hard to believe these things obtain with this poem in particular, because they apply equally to so many of his other poems as well. Maybe his project is so vast and far-reaching that it can’t be grasped all at once. Is it a perverse music of the spheres, so like the world we already inhabit that we don’t hear it? We can be generous and suggest that, rather than attempting to annihilate meaning, Ashbery is boldly hoping to discover or chart some new meaning in poetry. Is it poetry as chatter and distraction, or is it attempt after attempt to forge a new poetic language? Ashbery remarked in a Paris Review interview (Art of Poetry XXXIII) that “I write with experiences in mind, but I don’t write about them, I write out of them.” He leaves a great deal open to interpretation while including so much of the detritus of contemporary American life that most of what he writes can be read, on some level, as a commentary upon, or addition to, that very life.
In the April 23, 2005 edition of the Guardian, critic M. Wynn Thomas is quoted asking: “Is [Ashbery’s] work a libertarian, democratic, catholic approach to the world that its champions claim? Or is it, as others say, the corrupt aesthetic of capitalist consumerism? You could argue that it is both.” David Herd, in his review of Where Shall I Wander for the same newspaper, hears “conflicting voices of 21st-century America: the cheering ones, the demoralized ones, the soulless ones, the coercive ones.” There is surely something to this. Ashbery declared that “American vernacular is an important stimulus for me.” Still, Clive James commented in Poetry magazine (September 2010) on Ashbery’s recent refusal to make much use of the “verbal bounty” of American spoken language:
It is remarkable how John Ashbery, by now revered as the supreme American postwar poet, decided not to avail himself of the abundance. In his poem “Pyrography” he wrote “This is America calling,” but in most of his later work the calling is not notably American, or anyway not the American of everyday flip talk. Early on, he made full use of it: most notably in “Daffy Duck In Hollywood,” which I think is one of the great modern American poems. (I would mention it less often if more critics and scholars would hail its qualities: but they seem to like him better when he says nothing that doesn’t need them to explain it.)
Invariably described by critics as “difficult,” Ashbery (perhaps disingenuously) considers himself a simple and direct author of poems that deliberately switch tone, speaker, mood, tense, voice, and idiom seemingly at random. He cobbles together an aural surface that imitates the ADD noise of our channel-hopping daily lives, our bombardment by contradictory opinions, unconnected images, and raw data on a scale impossible to assimilate. He acknowledges in an interview with Daniel Kane for What is Poetry: Conversations with the American Avant-Garde that he “frequently incorporate[s] overheard speech,” and, as for the role randomness and chance might play in his poems, he concedes “I am a believer in fortuitous accidents.” These are trappings commonly associated with the urbane postmodern aesthetic. Put another way, postmodernism of the kind that Ashbery offers is frequently a nihilistic type of modernism. At times, he seems to enjoy confusion and instability, even as poetic process: “It’s a question of a sudden feeling of unsureness at what I am doing, wondering why I am writing the way I am, and also not feeling the urge to write in another way.” This does not arise from a provocative or incendiary instinct, as he explains in the Paris Review, but rather the belief that one must keep moving or be in danger of ossification:
My intention is to present the reader with a pleasant surprise, not an unpleasant one, not a nonsurprise. . . . ambiguity seems to be the same thing as happiness . . . ambiguity supposes eventual resolution of itself, whereas certitude implies further ambiguity.
Far from the unapproachable Parnassian, Ashbery sees himself as something of an entertainer in the American grain, a carnival barker, circus ringmaster (even if some see an itinerant huckster), though he distances himself from any kind of deliberate freakishness. He goes on to say in the same interview:
I would like to please the reader, and I think that surprise has to be an element of this, and that may necessitate a certain amount of teasing. To shock the reader is something else again. That has to be handled with great care if you’re not going to alienate and hurt him, and I’m firmly against that, just as I disapprove of people who dress with that in mind—dye their hair blue and stick safety pins through their noses and so on. The message here seems to be merely aggression—‘hey, you can’t be part of my strangeness’ sort of thing.
Even so, Ashbery’s poems strike one, at times, as supremely cerebral; perhaps not as austerely detached as those of his forebear Wallace Stevens, more open to play, but still inhabiting a realm of language and thought over raw feeling (feeling that may be construed as dangerous because, if poorly handled, it can quickly descend into sentimentality or outright mawkishness). David Perkins writes in A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After that the fact that “his subject, moreover, is not doings in the world but in the mind means that his poetry, like that of Stevens, largely forgoes the interest that attaches to human character and fate.” Yet there is something oddly domestic about his poems, as if a very cultivated but absentminded man, surrounded by the shielding bric-a-brac of generations, endlessly indulges himself with nostalgic daydreams and melancholy reflections. Marjorie Perloff has written
one could argue that there is a generic Ashbery poem. The speaker usually begins with an observation . . . that involves seemingly absurd detail or non-functional simile. An Ashbery poem characteristically collages childhood memories, present conversations, and interweaving narratives—almost always non-sequiturs that nevertheless add up to the sensation of being alive, here and now, in the bizarre, media-filled culture of the late twentieth century. The bemused and beleaguered Ashbery voice is immediately recognizable.
Nonetheless, many of Ashbery’s poems seem to emerge from small moments of lived life, mingled with fanciful productions of an overactive imagination, yet they remain somehow disconnected, lonely, bewildered. Consider these lines from “Boundary Issues,” which appeared in a 2009 issue of Poetry magazine:
We had a good meal, I and my friend,
slurping from the milk pail, grabbing at newer vegetables.
Yet life was a desert. Come home, in good faith.
You can still decide to. But it wanted warmth.
Otherwise ruse and subtlety would become impossible
in the few years or hours left to us. “Yes, but . . .”
The iconic beggars shuffled off too. I told you,
once a breach emerges it will become a chasm
before anyone’s had a chance to waver. A dispute
on the far side of town erupts into a war
in no time at all, and ends as abruptly. The tendency to heal
sweeps all before it, into the arroyo, the mine shaft,
into whatever pocket you were contemplating. And the truly lost
make up for it. It’s always us that has to pay.
“Yes, but . . .” indeed. Ashbery, advocate of the “truly lost,” sorts through fragments that once shored a ruin, but the center no longer holds. The weird juxtaposition and overflow of information that began with the 19th-century newspaper has expanded through digital technology to nearly every corner of our waking lives, and that is reflected back upon us in Ashbery’s poems. Ashbery told Erica Wright, in Guernica magazine, “I’ve always felt somewhat at a remove from the world around me in America.” He has, however, defended his poetry from the charge of airy detachment: “My poetry does have a reputation for being aloof and antihuman. But I’m quite the reverse. . . . I don’t believe in closing myself off from anybody or anything.” As for the allegation that his poems are formless or open-ended, as both his acolytes and detractors claim, he responds “my poems have their own form, which is the one that I want, even though other people might not agree that it is there. I feel that there is always a resolution to my poems.” At times, his use of disjointed language can work in his favor. We see this in the short 2007 poem “Anticipated Stranger,” which, nonsensical as it may appear, conveys a sense of dazed pain when we only listen to it. Here it is in its entirety:
the bruise will stop by later.
For now, the pain pauses in its round,
notes the time of day, the patient’s temperature,
leaves a memo for the surrogate: What the hell
did you think you were doing? I mean . . .
Oh well, less said the better, they all say.
I’ll post this at the desk.
God will find the pattern and break it.
What is literally stated here? Not much. Who is the “anticipated stranger,” and is his arrival dreaded or hoped for? Is it a doctor, or a nurse, who will save a life? Is it a missing family member? Is it Death? What is being done, or performed, by the poem? That is a different question. “Anticipated Stranger” succeeds as a brief glimpse of a fretful state of affairs or sharp flicker of grief on the part of a participant. The hammering anguish of the last line, which constitutes its own stanza and coda to the hospital-ward ramblings of the preceding, is unmistakable.
In the Times of London, Stephen Burt catalogs the assorted possibilities Ashbery’s poetry presents: “The great inventor of a style fluid enough to reflect our uncertain times, a helpless symbol of those times, an incomprehensible hoax, a clear-as-glass poet of loneliness and dejection, the greatest living Surrealist, the last Romantic . . .” It’s possible that Ashbery is, or has been, at one time or another, nearly all of these things. He holds up an enchanted mirror, perhaps a shattered one, which reflects back whatever the viewer most wants to see in its broken shards. Hugo Williams, in his weekly commentary for the September 24, 2010 Times Literary Supplement, lightheartedly depicts Ashbery’s poems as a suitable surrogate for T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” handy for university professors hoping to beguile young poetry readers, noting that “Eliot’s poem’s celebrity, along with its usefulness, may be on the wane. Its secrets are out and the students have got the crib. More random material is needed by the faculty to stay ahead of the game and here comes John Ashbery, natural inheritor of the seat of cultural chaos, the answer to their prayers. Now nobody need be wrong about anything ever again because everything they think of will be true. . . . Once upon a time, mad poets struggled to make sense; now it’s the other way round.” But we can also work backwards to determine what he is not. As unreal as his poems may feel, Ashbery distinguishes his approach from that of classic Surrealism: His is “a very unconscious kind of writing. But not in the sense of the unconscious writing that the surrealists for instance practiced which is sort of like taking dictation from their unconscious mind. I don’t think that that’s a successful way of working either. I manage my unconscious.”
Likewise, Ashbery disabuses us of the common notion that his poetry descends largely from French models: “I don’t feel French poetry has had much of an influence with the exception of Rimbaud and Roussel. . . I feel French as a language is too clear and mathematical for poetry, at least for my kind of poetry.” Perhaps he is more Proustian than anything else. Again, in the Paris Review, he spoke appreciatively of Proust’s technique, “the way somehow everything could be included in this vast, open form that he created for himself—particularly certain almost surreal passages.” That seems as good a description as any—in the broadest of strokes—for Ashbery’s progress. As for the suggestion that he perpetrates an “incomprehensible hoax,” the poet allows that “people on both sides are much more familiar with the myth that has grown up about my work than they are with the work itself. I am either an inspired seer or a charlatan who is trying to torment readers.”
Harold Bloom, one of Ashbery’s greatest campaigners, sees in the poet’s coursing poems “versions or revisions” of Walt Whitman’s quintessentially American poem “Song of Myself” and, finally, the end of Romanticism itself. Helen Vendler, who remarked in the New Yorker that it is “popularly believed, with some reason, that [Ashbery’s] style itself is impenetrable” also wrote in a New York Times review of 2009’s Planisphere that “Ashbery’s own mental inventory is a comic one, the contents of a trading ship straight out of the pages of a colonizer’s journal.” Meghan O’Rourke pointed out in Slate that “even today a critic like Helen Vendler confesses that she’s often ‘mistaken’ about what Ashbery is up to. You can see why: It simply may not be possible to render a sophisticated explication de texte” [of “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape” from his 1970 Double Dream of Spring]. Ms. O’Rourke had these lines in mind:
Minute at first, the thunder
Soon filled the apartment. It was domestic thunder,
The color of spinach. Popeye chuckled and scratched
His balls: it sure was pleasant to spend a day in the country.
This passage gives me a chuckle. I am fond of the bulging, and bawdy, Popeye-as-Incredible-Hulk diorama, but it is, I am certain, a rather private reading, and so I am inclined to agree with Ms. O’Rourke.
Even devoted, longtime readers will admit that no single Ashbery line stands out or is easily-recalled like the icons of earlier generations: “shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” or “I am large, I contain multitudes” or “April is the cruelest month.” Ashbery’s poetry is process-oriented, which is to say that a poem reflects the process of its own making, much as a Jackson Pollock drip painting takes as its subject the energy of its own creation. As Ashbery told Mark Ford, in a book-length interview for Waywiser Press, “a few words will filter in over the transom, as they say in publishing, and I’ll grab them and start trying to put them together. This causes something to happen to some other words that I hadn’t been thinking of which may well take over the poem to the point of excluding the original ones.” More to the point, he subscribes to the “abstract expressionist idea that the work is a sort of record of its own coming-into-existence; it has an ‘anti-referential sensuousness.’” A superb explanation, “anti-referential sensuousness”: the several oddities that wind up in the Joseph Cornell Box of an Ashbery poem don’t neatly correspond to one another and only obliquely, or awkwardly, to anything outside. Unlike that of a visual object, however, the driving force of the poems is to be located, to a large degree, in patterns that unfold across time: “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 origin.”
In an Ashbery poem, the scramble of American popular commercial culture is frozen into an intriguing and often disorienting literary artifact. Daniel Pritchard writes in The Wooden Spoon that Ashbery’s poems, “like music, [are] more about evocation in the reader than symbolic or essayistic communication through the text. Thus, a coherent reading per se is nearly impossible; only impressions and techniques can be described.” Ashbery has admitted as much. In an interview with Travis Nichols from the February 2009 issue of The Believer, he spoke of liking “the idea of not knowing yourself what’s going to come next [in a poem], just as when you’re listening to a piece of music you don’t know what’s waiting around the corner.” Perception of this alliance to musical composition is indispensable when reading Ashbery. He often applies musical terminology when portraying his poetry:
I am trying to reproduce the polyphony that goes on inside me, which I don’t think is radically different from that of other people. After all, one is constantly changing one’s mind and thereby becoming something slightly different.
It is important to listen to the poems (he is a very good reader of his work) for the changes, allow them to spread out (not open up, as a flower) over time, which may explain why they so rarely demand rereading or repay memorization. In an April 1989 interview in Chromata, Ashbery approved of a species of poetry as “an experience that has the passing of time built into it just as music does.” Ever the postmodernist, with profound roots in modernism, Ashbery does not equate musicality with harmoniousness. He expanded on this in an October 2008 interview for the Library of America:
I would say that there are examples of music-inspired poetry—or music-emulating poetry—throughout my work. They don’t necessarily “sound” musical; in fact I’m not interested in “euphony” (of the Tennysonian type for instance, much as I love Tennyson)—but they are musical in their way of demonstrating, developing, and resolving.
Ashbery remains very difficult to pin down, which is surely his point, if not his lifelong goal. For instance, he told John Tranter, for Jacket, “I always had a taste for sort of wild experimental poetry,” yet in an interview for Carcanet, his English publisher, he confessed he’s “always enjoyed more traditional art and poetry . . . I’d like to write like Tennyson but make it new.” His poetry, like his own commentary upon it, would appear to be made up of conversions, transformations, and an unapologetic volatility.
Ashbery’s poems may have seemed new and remarkably fresh in the 1950s and 1960s, to the few readers he had at the time, but today it is hard to think of Ashbery as being avant-garde in any meaningful way. He is not ahead of anything. In fact, it could be argued that he does not symbolize the beginning of something new so much as he embodies the end of so much else, all the forces that animate the vortex at the center of his work: Symbolism, Dadaism, Surrealism, the styles of poetry that sprang from L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry (though it must be noted that he is not directly motivated by theories that inspire L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets: “I don’t really have any [attitudes toward new literary theories] because I don’t follow them. . . . I read very little criticism”). With the deaths of Kenneth Koch in 2002 and Barbara Guest in 2006, he is the last living principal member of the New York School of poetry (the “last avant-garde” of David Lehman’s noted book), at least among its first generation. The votive pleasures offered by Ashbery’s poetry are rarified, even possibly elitist, in their way. It won’t do to pretend anymore that he is burning away the dross of a corrupt literary past in aid of a healthier future, if only because his poetry embodies so much of the past.
Ashbery is fully aware of the divisions he has occasioned, the confusion he has sown. He told Sue Gangel as early as the late 1970s that “Very few people have ever written a serious mixed critique of my poetry. It’s either dismissed as nonsense of held up as a work of genius,” an observation that would prove no less accurate today. He even kidded in the Paris Review, “I often wonder if I am suffering from some mental dysfunction because of how weird and baffling my poetry seems to so many people and sometimes to me too.” What is he trying to say in his poems? By his own account, nothing too specific, certainly nothing about any particular object: “There is no message, nothing I want to tell the world particularly except what I am thinking when I am writing.” He does, however, admit that his style of composition could arouse bemusement in readers not accustomed to his methods: “I feel caught in the middle, as though I’d just interrupted a dialogue,” he says (as do we), though he expects that in time his style could be seen as the default setting for contemporary verse: “Since I never tried to make my work inaccessible to begin with, I saw no need to make it accessible . . . so many things that seem strange, even outrageous when they first appeared, come to seem normal just because they have grown older.”
Ashbery’s late style,[iii] particularly as expressed in a poem like “Mottled Tuesday,” and as influential as it has become,[iv] lacks much of what makes poetry sustainable and enjoyable, in my opinion. Anthony Daniels believes that “art is precisely the means by which man makes sense of, and transcends, his own limitations and flaws. Without art—or the arts—there is only flux.” Ashbery’s readers may identify his art with the very flux that Daniels hopes to overcome, and surely the two approaches are not entirely irreconcilable. Whatever the case, Ashbery is certainly not interested in poems as proportioned, deeply-constructed, lapidary affairs: “I usually write quickly and don’t revise a lot . . . I hate work and yet love the feeling of having accomplished something.” Even of his most famous and very “readable” poem “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” he has remarked “[readers] think they see a plan [in the poem], whereas it’s really just as scattershot and disorganized as my other writing.”
Still, Ashbery is masterly in his way: a master of the Ashberian realm of the unreal, of enchanting disjuncture, agile surprise. He maps side roads that wind to cliff’s edge, where a cartoon figment magically suspends itself in air for a moment, unaware the ground has dropped away, before whistling down into a remote puff of smoke. He has created what may someday be thought of as our period style. Perhaps he’ll be remembered as our Algernon Charles Swinburne, a once-controversial, decadent author of immense artifice, of swimming sentences and barren sounds that swathe and suffocate meaning rather than transport it. Ultimately, Ashbery’s poetry strikes me as inadequate because I believe that poetry is both a well-wrought urn—an attentively constructed work of art that contains and employs ambiguity to its own ends, blending sound and sense toward distinct emotional meaning—and a momentary stay against confusion, not a continuation or cause of that confusion.
Insofar as I enjoy later Ashbery, it is as a light read, more akin to Charles Bukowski than T.S. Eliot. I never attempt to unpack an Ashbery poem the way I might a poem by Geoffrey Hill. I simply don’t believe much is buried in individual words or phrases. His poetry is a movement of sensibility, tone, and speaker, like light and shadow playing over a landscape. It is temporary. It’s not meant to be captured. The reader must indulge in the pleasures of slipperiness and open-endedness, sometimes of simple sound. The best advice one can give to a reader of Ashbery’s poems is this: Don’t take them too seriously. You may filter the litter of indistinct clues, looking for some closure, but Ashbery has made a career of wiggling out of any sense of conclusion or simple meaning, and he intends to keep it that way.
[i] Some would suggest that this is an example of the way in which Ashbery’s poems “embody the idea that is their subject,” according to an anonymous Publisher’s Weeklyreviewer.
[ii] Ashbery’s other attempts at Ars Poetica include his poems “And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name” and “What is a Poem?” both from Houseboat Days, 1977.
[iii] Of course there is no single “later style” for Ashbery. His 2000 collection Your Name Here contains poems as straightforward and autobiographical as “The History of My Life” (“Once upon a time there were two brothers / Then there was only one: myself”) and surreally playful as “Stanzas Before Time” (I’d take you for a drive / in my flivver, Miss Ocean, honest, if I could”). Chinese Whispers (2002) hearkens back to the conversational prose poetry of Flow Chart (1991) with “A Nice Presentation” (“I have a friendly disposition but am forgetful, though I tend to forget only important things”). Where Shall I Wander (2005) features the intermittent rhymes of “The New Higher” (“I learned that you called for me. I came to where / you were living, up a stair. There was no one there”) and “Retro” (It’s really quite a thrill / when the moon rises above the hill”), a convention he abandoned at age eight. As for the frenzied accumulation of the particles of American culture, it would be hard to imagine a fitter example than “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” from Houseboat Days: “Just now a magnetic storm hung in the swatch of sky / Over the Fudds’ garage, reducing it—drastically— / To the aura of a plumbago-blue log cabin on / A Gadsden Purchase commemorative cover.” In fact none of his more recent poems can be any more experimental or exasperating than what one finds in 1962’s The Tennis Court Oath, with its dizzying title poem (“like a particular cry not intervening called the dog ‘he’s coming! he’s coming’ with an emotion felt it sink into peace / there was no turning back but the end was in sight”). This is not far distant from 2009’s Planisphere, with its poem “Breathlike”:
Then there was a cup and ball theory
I told you about. A lot of people had left the coast.
Squirt conditions obtained. I forgot I overwhelmed you
once upon a time, between everybody’s sound sleep
and waking afterward, trying to piece together
what had happened. The rut glimmered
through centuries of snow and after.
I suppose it was trying to make some point
but we never found out about that,
having come to know each other years later
when our interest in zoning had revived again.
Perhaps it is simply the great productivity of Ashbery’s later years that gives the impression of “too much” poetry avalanching onto us until we push away from the table and shout “basta!”
[iv] Harold Bloom declaimed “He is our major poet since the death of Wallace Stevens in 1955.”