With the publication of his twelfth volume of poetry, John Ashbery moves to the forefront of a select group of contemporary American poets. To be sure, his reputation as an artist of considerable technical resources, intelligence, and vigor has long been established. Nevertheless, among even his dedicated readers Ashbery has certainly been a puzzling master to classify. Sometimes critics have placed him with the so-called “New York School”—which is neither a school nor movement of poets as such, but more accurately a geographical grouping of selected writers with similar superficial characteristics. Among the characteristics which Ashbery shares with a number of these poets is his dazzling virtuosity; his calculated witty effects; his imitation in verse of certain modes of modern art, such as abstract-expressionism; and his attraction to “psychological” subjects. On the other hand, Ashbery is quite different from the New York poets in several significant ways: he is deeply in earnest, whereas the representative New York poets are conspicuously frivolous, often to the point of self-parody; and he is disturbing—a poet who cuts deeply to moral issues and wounds—rather than, like most of the New York group, genially entertaining.
What has confused some critics in their proper estimate of John Ashbery’s achievement is the artist’s seeming inconsistency. His work ranges from long, technically exacting verse of great distinction to minor experiments, clever pieces of self-indulgence. For example, his Three Poems (1972) is a volume of extended prose-poems that resemble personal essays. Similarly, The Vermont Notebook (1975) is, at least on the surface, a scrapbook of poetic trivia: catalogues of names and objects and pieces of satiric observation, with only brief passages of poetic intensity. Yet even these volumes, outwardly contrasting with a “serious” collection like the powerful Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), hint at the poet’s serious purposes. He appears to be working out a design, refining a language with which he can express his true voice as a poet.
With Houseboat Days, that voice is distinctly articulated. Ashbery no longer is experimenting to achieve effects; this method is sure, his communication direct—at least as direct as we are likely to expect from so complex and fertile an intelligence. The collection mostly of short or medium-length lyrics but including one long masterly dialogue, “Fantasia on ’The Nut-Brown Maid,’” demonstrates Ashbery’s maturity as an artist. Not a single poem lacks significance; and at least a dozen are permanent contributions to American poetry.
This is not to say that Ashbery is a poet easily accessible to the multitudes. A tragedian, he is aware of human limitations, especially the limits of romantic dreams. The sharpest tension in his verse is the paradox between complete receptivity to emotion and the failure, ultimately, to be moved. Like Wordsworth of the “Intimations Ode” or Coleridge of “Dejection: An Ode”—both poignant expressions of the loss of sensitivity—Ashbery treats as his major subject the similar theme of passive perception that cannot flame into joy.
Among contemporary writers, Ashbery most nearly resembles Philip Larkin. Like that poet, he believes that stoic resignation is the best policy for an individual who senses his own limitations. If the modern world forbids him romantic joy, a sensible poet will not, to be sure, gnash his teeth in romantic agony. But Larkin is considerably more cheerful than Ashbery. Indeed, the English poet seems somewhat relieved to understand, in view of the fact that he lives in an unheroic age, that he has no obligations to carry the burdens of world-sorrow. Ashbery, on the other hand, is disheartened. His stoicism masks an agony of despair. “I don’t set much stock in things,” he writes in “Houseboat Days,”
Beyond the weather and the certainties of living and dying:The rest is optional. To praise this, blame that,Leads one subtly away from the beginning, where