The Voice of the Poet Part 5: John Ashbery

As Reviewed By: Ernest Hilbert

Part 5: John Ashbery

John Ashbery has often been described as the most important poet writing in English today. Even if this cannot be said with any great deal of enthusiasm, one may relent and admit that he is certainly the most influential poet to cast seeds on American soil for some time. That any single poet might find himself in such an enviably central and rarely contended position is itself a remarkable achievement in an age as aesthetically decadent and rife with poets as is our own. To speak of the “English” language, however, immediately begs obvious questions, and, in a typically triumphalist statement made at Yale six years ago, Ashbery insisted that he writes in the American language, which “includes the English language.” Originally cast as a first generation member of the perpetually avant-garde New York School, which includes Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara in its inner ring and James Schuyler, the perennial dark horse, at the outer ring, he quickly wriggled free. Even in the late 1950s the classification barely held, as Ashbery made for Paris and remained there for a decade writing poems while penning art criticism for the New York Herald Tribune and ArtNews. Known as the “poet” of the group, a striking distinction in such a group, he has aged into the elder statesman of American literature, the last of the New York School, continuing to publish regularly (some might think too much) and deliver energetic readings around New York City, where he now lives.

The recordings preserved here cover exactly three decades, book-ended by “Soonest Mended” in 1970 and “The Underwriters” in 2000. The readings are briskly paced, unlike the creeping dramatic approach taken by many poets, yet Ashbery seems so relaxed at times as to seem nearly perfunctory. Unlike W. H. Auden (who selected Ashbery’s first book of poems, Some Trees, for the Yale Younger Poets series and later admitted that he hadn’t really understood a word of it), whose age and failing health could be heard as he rasped through his later recordings, Ashbery’s voice seems not to have commuted much with the years (the moderation of a philosopher king is apparent): there is an already-matured affection to the earliest recordings and a buoyant jounce to the most recent.

Widely and invariably described as “difficult,” Ashbery has always considered himself a simple and direct poet. Most readers coming to poetry for the first time will probably disagree with his self-assessment. His poems switch tone, speaker, mood, tense, voice, and idiom seemingly at random. He cobbles together an aural surface that imitates the peripatetic noise of our channel-hopping daily lives. There is very little unity to his poetry, and even devoted, longtime readers will admit that no single Ashbery line stands out or is easily recalled like the verbal 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.” There is, in fact, a ready key to understanding his poetry, and it is the same key that can be used to unlatch the visual art of a generation before. His poems are, in a very oblique sense, more direct than the linguistic escarpments raised by most contemporary poets. They are what can be termed process-oriented, which is to say that the poem reflects the process of its own making, much as a Jackson Pollock drip painting takes as its subject only its own method of creation. All types of diction and dialogue find their way into Ashbery’s poems, as do every passing moment and image. The scramble of American popular commercial culture is frozen into an intriguing and often disorienting literary artifact.

After winning the Triple Crown of American literature-the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the national Book Critics Circle Award-all in a single year, 1976, for Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror-his reputation has only increased. That watershed year saw an abrupt vault from avant-garde obscurity to public adulation for Ashbery, and it brought with it attendant troubles. Ezra Pound, the disgraced old man with wild hair, once the leading light of modernism, died in Italy in 1972. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton were both dead, as was John Berryman. T. S. Eliot and Randall Jarrell were long since gone. Robert Lowell was in decline and would pass away the following year. Elizabeth Bishop had been temporarily eclipsed, and her seminars were hardly attended at all. American poetry was rudderless at the end of the 1970s, and fingers were held up to discern which way the wind would begin to blow. Ashbery charted the new course. He went from shadowy garret to bright auditorium without the intervening period of actually being “understood” by his audience.

Critical assessment was only to be shaped, sometimes unreliably, over the following three decades and continues unabated today. Ashbery now has more works of criticism devoted to his work than many canonical poets of past centuries:On the Outside Looking Out, by John Shoptaw, Five Temperaments, by David Kalstone, Beyond Amazement, edited by David Lehman, John Ashbery: Modern Critical Views, edited by Harold Bloom, The Tribe of John, Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry, edited by Susan Schultz, and John Ashbery and American Poetry, by David Herd. This is a single handful from a large barrel of available books and journals. The explication of his poetry and its influence, which has been nothing less than profound for poets under the age of 30, has been transformed into a cottage industry. The rhythmic flattening and formal breaches forced by Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound had (at last) fully taken hold by the time Ashbery wrote his best poems; the decasyllabic transaction between the written and spoken word that held pervasively from Chaucer to the twentieth century is nowhere to be seen (or heard). Formed of a potent Petri of French Existentialism (the “actual” over the “real”), deconstruction, Abstract Expressionism, and all manner of popular cultural sediment, his poetry has continued to evolve from sea to land to sky, and finally to shed any expected form altogether.

The title poem of the collection that made him famous, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” is, in its echoing way, The Waste Land of the 1970s, the lodestone for free verse poets who write in its aftermath. There is a growing contingent that would recommend “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” as the most important single American poem written since the Second World War (there is a group that would claim Allen Ginsberg’s virtually amphigouric “Howl” and another that might claim Adrienne Rich’s “Diving Into the Wreck,” but that is another story). Ashbery’s hypnotic long reading of it is the centerpiece of these recordings, and one is again surprised by its conversational tone and exhilarating shifts of focus and allusional fabric. Loosely based on a self-portrait by the sixteenth-century Italian Mannerist painter Parmigianino, it wanders according to the effacing and renewing patterns of the mind itself. The poem becomes the object of the creative process (here directly copying a leaf, or gesture, as it were, from the Abstract Expressionists and their drunken Ruskin, Clement Greenberg). J. D. McClatchy has written that “the effect is rather like overhearing a radio in the next room whose dial someone is slowly turning: one minute Beethoven, the next hip-hop, the next a traffic report. All is equal in the ‘flowing, fleeting’ moment, nothing is excluded or judged.” The poem begins to take on the form of a psychological monologue, but one as removed from Robert Browning’s densely-characterized “Fra Lippo Lippi” as from the art histories that provide much of the poem’s external buttressing. The poet’s mind, therefore the poem, becomes a ganglion of historical and aesthetic (if not epistemological) synapses, a crossroads to match Meggido or Constantinople at their heights. Ashbery’s career as an art critic is everywhere in evidence, infiltrating the more formal qualities of the poems in a manner altogether different from his brother in arms Frank O’Hara, who was also an art critic and a curator at MoMA. Voices from history (what Ashbery termed “whispers out of time”) cross through the poem:

The locking into place is “death itself,”
As Berg said of a phrase in Mahler’s Ninth;
Or, to quote Imogen in Cymbeline, “There cannot
Be a pinch in death more sharp than this,” for,
Though only exercise or tactic, it carries
The momentum of a conviction that had been building.

Although he is too emotionally insouciant and occasionally camp to be genuinely rhapsodic in the style of visionary American poets like Hart Crane, Ashbery is nonetheless composing in the lyric tradition, if in a markedly slippery and even fugitive style (his million imitators have made his self-evolving style seem conventional to today’s reader). One must remember that Ashbery encloses the words “poetic” and “art” with what a pundit would call scare quotes. Poetry and art still exist, but they hover just out of reach of the self-conscious mind. Similarly, Ashbery’s sweeping deployment of pronouns tends to draw the reader in, as though a sense of community, however desperate and confused, were formed, or at least framed, in the poem, but a sphinx has mounted this particular pulpit. Prolonged grammatical constructions leave the listener with a poetic impression akin to the musical resonance of Debussy’s Deux Arabesques or Valse romantique. Meaning is constantly deferred as the musical resolution of the line is itself deferred (in a Derridian sense, here, play is the continuation of possibility, opposed to structure, formerly the governing force in poetic language).

If one were to approach a consensus that philosophical problems are, at root (though they may have no root), language problems, the poem emerges as a model of such anti-modelers. Yet Ashbery again slips these reigns. One feels that he has in mind the cynical legions sent out from Europe’s academies by Jakobson, Genette, Lacan, Bakhtin, Todorov, Shklovsky, and their post-structuralist seconds, when he casts out this barb:

There is no other way, and those assholes
Who would confuse everything with their mirror games
Which seem to multiply stakes and possibilities, or
At least confuse issue by means of an investing
Aura that would corrode the architecture
Of the whole in a haze of suppressed mockery,
Are beside the point. They are out of the game,
Which doesn’t exist until they are out of it.

Beneath the floating abstractions there exists a solid rhetorical landscape. A poem may not need to hold meaning in a traditional sense, but eloquence, force, and conviction (of a sort) still inhere in language, as we know it. Also, critics rarely give full credit to Ashbery for his sense of humor, which becomes clear in the recordings. For instance, one encounters such lines as “A kind of fence-sitting / Raised to the level of an esthetic ideal.” The humor is of a disjoined and particularly cerebral variety, but audience laughter is common to the live recordings. “And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name” generated so much laughter that Ashbery was forced to pause and wait for it to recede on more than one occasion.

The poems give the impression of being at once very personal and fully removed from their audience, or, as Ashbery writes, “too close to ignore, too far / For one to intervene.” Despite the fertile sowing of pronouns, the many we’s and you’s, one encounters in the poem an object as solid as a sculpture. In a typically sardonic moment, Ashbery has admitted that his poems are not private, but are rather “about the privacy of everyone.” Aside from the slim beauty of this Wildean evasion, we are left with the sense that perhaps he does in fact touch upon things such as Wordsworth would have found “too deep for tears,” and these moments, fleeting whispers out of time, are captured here to be relived at the listener’s leisure.

About Ernest Hilbert

Ernest Hilbert edited the Contemporary Poetry Review from 2005 until 2010. His poems have appeared in The New Republic, Yale Review, American Poetry Review, Parnassus, Boston Review, Verse, New Criterion, American Scholar, and the London Review. His debut collection is Sixty Sonnets (2009). He graduated from Oxford University, where he edited the Oxford Quarterly. He hosts the popular blog and video show and is an antiquarian book dealer in Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife, an archaeologist.
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