Ashbery, John 1927–
An American experimental poet who influenced contemporary French poetry during his nearly ten years in France, Ashbery is best known for his collections The Tennis Court Oath and Rivers and Mountains. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Looking at Ashbery's work in aesthetic terms alone makes about as much sense as taking Traherne's Centuries of Meditation (with which Three Poems has a great deal in common) as a response to the itch to meditate. Of course Ashbery is innovative; it is just beyond that point that his poetry begins….
We might get a clearer view of it by abandoning the pretense that we already know what poems are, and are in a position to recognize a (merely) new one. Three Poems almost forces us to abandon it. What they 'are', after all, are meditations—which derivatively describes a form, but primarily an activity….
And the essence of a meditation—Descartes', Traherne's, Proust's, Ashbery's—is the urgent exploration (by whatever means available) of a recognizable, but until now unrecognized problem; an exploration covering—or rather, defining—a concrete stretch of human time….
Three Poems explicitly assumes the form; but all of Ashbery's works are meditations, and with that sort of necessity: "These things led into life." And yet: "This was not even the life that was going to happen to us." Which raises a question: Whose lives are the ones floating in and out of these meditations? To which he seems to reply: Yours and mine and others, of course; while at the same time "each of us is this multitude as well as that isolated individual." This is one road leading through the trilogy….
Against Ashbery's, the work of most other poets seems dismally contingent. Somehow it is just the even weight he allows each thing, the possibility of blending "in a union too subtle to cause any comment," that accounts for its stature. This is a vision as simple to understand as it is impossible to learn.
John Koethe, "Ashbery's Meditations," in Parnassus, Fall/Winter, 1972, pp. 89-93.
The ability to go on and on has always struck me as the signal characteristic of the work of John Ashbery. Many of Ashbery's poems are really improvisations on the theme of flux. Three Poems, I suppose, is an aria on the subject. Perhaps I should say an oratorio. Some people have frankly confessed that they have been unable to get through these recent prose poems of Ashbery's. And they have something there. I read every word, but it was a struggle. One difficulty, I suspect, is Ashbery's particular way with reality, his slit-eyed way of looking at things. ("Her eyes are open," remarks the servant of the sleepwalking Lady Macbeth. "Yes," replies the doctor, "but their sense is shut.") Then, too, Ashbery is so casually tyrannical about information—he adds and diminishes at will. Often the shaping of stanza, pace, and point, the balancing of one mood against another mood seem absolutely unknown to him—actually, I'm sure, they simply bore him.
Usually his poems are full of interrogations and interruptions, errors and contradictions, crevices of delight in a craggy landscape, contemplative poems exhilarating in a constant reversal toward the unexpected, going against the grain, presenting, say (as happens frequently in the playful earlier works), philosophical speculations with the deadpan delivery of a weather report, or romantic effusions with the air of an old bore explaining to you the ins and outs of operating an electric mower when you go to buy one at your hardware store.
Ashbery, I think, is a secretive soul always stirred by dislocation. Or by travel and relocation. On the way—that's his motto. How often in his rare and adventurous poems do his descriptions become prescriptions. How often are we being sent to "the middle of the desert," or "to a violent sea," or somewhere we've already been "to nurse some private project."…
Ashbery, it seems to me, is distracted, and often by the sheer daring and beauty of his thought, or by the numberless aesthetic theories that have become for him transcriptions of the self, the self perennially asking: "How does it feel to be outside and inside at the same time?"…
[The] solutions to the dilemma of the self as subject and object—that where we are or what we have is "enough" or that this is "as it should be" or that the point of the peregrination is the "synthesis of very simple elements in a new and strong, as opposed to old and weak, relation to one another"—well, such revelations can hardly be thought of as meaningful since such solutions were undoubtedly available to Ashbery, as a map of a country is always available to a tourist, long before Ashbery's quest began….
The trouble with "inspirational" truth then—ultimately the port at which Three Poems berths—is that it is no "truth" at all. Simply a matter of temperament, a means of turning one's negatives into one's positives, of saying, for example, that the glass is half full instead of saying that the glass is half empty. The problem, however, is never of quantity, but always of quality. What's in the glass—that's what affects us. Ashbery, at times, is poignantly aware of how devastating what effects us can be, as scattered admonitions throughout Three Poems testify, principally that "we must learn to live in others, no matter how abortive or unfriendly their cold, piecemeal renderings of us: they create us." But Ashbery never grapples with how we live in others, or why, more important, it is often so impossible to live in others. Or when he does deal with these matters, the anguish of experience—what sets us apart from others, what united us with others—is absent. What isn't absent, what carries Ashbery along from page to page, what makes Three Poems so idyllic and so abstract, is Ashbery's inordinate interest in speculative enchantment, the spinning about himself again and again of a transcendental aura in the form of solipsistic reverie—doubly dubious, I think, since solipsism denies transcendence, anyway (see Bradley). In Ashbery, there has always been a catlike presence, both in the poems themselves and in the person these poems reveal: tender, curious, cunning, tremendously independent, sweet, guarded. Above all, like a cat, Ashbery is a born hunter: now prowling about through Deepest Africa; now chasing leaves or scraps of paper, rolling over and over, and then curling up, happily exhausted, beneath a bush; now on the scent for some of the sacred mysteries the feline creatures the Egyptians worshipped were rumored to be seeking here and there. But the pure prime act of the cat—to spring, to pounce, to make the miraculous leap—Ashbery, for me, has yet to perform.
Of course he is by far the most interesting poet of his generation writing; some of the stanzas from "The Bungalows" or "Fragment" or "Voyage in the Blue" alone are bewitching enough to place him head and shoulders above most of his contemporaries. Nor should one forget how unusual a rhetoric Ashbery—and also Frank O'Hara, a more spontaneous poet—brought to American verse. Nothing like that quite existed before, though now and again in Hart Crane one can already hear it beginning to breathe, and with Ashbery there was always Wallace Stevens. Interesting, too, often precisely because Ashbery does not always succeed, precisely because his failures or partial failures are the triumphs of tomorrow on which he and others can build.
Robert Mazzocco, "Very Different Cats," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), December 13, 1973, pp. 45-7.