Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award, a Guggenheim and MacArthur fellow, and chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, John Ashbery is one of the most honored writers of his generation. A new book by him is a literary event. It is important, however, in coming to a book by an eminent figure such as Ashbery—or a book by a poet being published for the first time—to set aside any preconceptions based on reputation or literary gossip, to read simply the words on the page—for that, as Ashbery and his followers have tirelessly insisted, is what poetry consists of: words.
In his new book-length poem, Flow Chart, Ashbery takes as his subject the task of writing a long, open-form poem about the process of writing that poem. His self-reflexive, opaque verse attempts both to capture its source in the deep well-springs of consciousness and to comment on its genesis in an inchoate rush of language. The six parts of the poem alternate between text and commentary, although it is often difficult to distinguish between the two.
The poem’s title reflects the dominant metaphor of the “flow chart,” a contemporary image of administrative structure, hierarchy, and control or, in the definition quoted on the dust- jacket, “a schematic diagram…showing the progress of materials through the various stages of a manufacturing process.” The title implies the author’s own continual struggle to impose form and structure of his unwieldy materials. Ashbery’s poem belies the implication of its title: There is no clear organizational structure here, not even the abstract lines of power and control of a corporate flow chart. Instead, his muse seems so distractable that he is unable to focus on the act of composition, so he offers random phrases—moods and impressions without a coherent context.
Cultivating a postmodern style, Ashbery refuses to concede to his readers even the most elementary structural forms or internal coherence. He rejects narrative coherence, or any attempt to impose form or order on the free play of his imagination. His voice is constantly being distracted by new impressions impinging upon his consciousness, but he refuses to impose any artistic form on these impulses. As a result, his verse seems to expend itself in tantalizing but unconnected and incoherent verbal energy.
Ashbery is often associated with the “New York School” of poets—Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler—and like them he shares a fascination with the Abstract Expressionist painters of the postwar New York art scene. He tries to capture in language the abstract energy and bold techniques of the canvases of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline; or the nontonal sound compositions of Anton von Webern and John Cage. An art critic as well as a poet, Ashbery has consciously tried to incorporate the methods of the studio artist, using not form and color but the more inherently abstract medium of language. As a result, there is no attempt to create a shared discourse of meaning for poet and reader; instead, the reader finds an undifferentiated verbal collage of random impressions—clichés, banal phrases, trite expressions, vague and subjective generalizations about whatever comes to the poet’s mind at the moment of composition. Disdaining any pretense of meaning, Ashbery’s verse lapses into random verbal noise: “Alack he said what stressful sounds.”
Aside from their commitment to experiment and innovation, the poets of the New York School were decidedly unprogrammatic. What they derived from avant-garde music and painting was a “concept of the poem as the chronicle of the creative act that produces it,” or as O’Hara put it, the ambition “to be the work yourself.” Ashbery’s poems emphasize the fragmentary, tentative nature of experience, which in his view is too elusive to be captured in verse. His poetry is difficult precisely because it shuns the modernist conventions of form. His lines are dreamlike, nonsequential, solipsistic—an assemblage of personal associations, fragments of conversation, continually shifting excerpts of personal monologue. Ashbery’s verse seems to aspire to a kind of automatic writing, but, without an identifiable authorial presence or center of consciousness, there can be no coherent stream-of-consciousness rendering of the speaker’s experience. The poet refuses to locate the center of his poem within any identifiable context of meaning. There is no Mrs. Ramsay as in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927); no Leopold or Molly Bloom as in James Joyce’sUlysses (1922); no mythic protagonist as in William Carlos Williams’Paterson (1948-1958). It is as if, in the poet’s words: “sleep itself became this chasm of repeated words,/ of shifting banks of words rising like stream/ out of someplace into something.” His deliberate verbal disjunctions seem reminiscent of the dream sequences in Joyce’sFinnegans Wake (1939). Like a...
(The entire section is 2055 words.)