Ashbery, John 1927–
An American experimental poet whose best-known collections are The Tennis Court Oath and Rivers and Mountains. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Ashbery [is] a very difficult and perhaps impossible poet … Some Trees is made up of poems which display a great deal of irresponsible yet often engaging imagination. With one half of the mind feeling like a mystified but somehow willing accomplice, and the other half becoming more and more skeptical, one follows the bright, faddish jargon Ashbery talks with considerable obscure brightness, trying patiently, with some engagement, to decide which of several possible meanings each poem intends. The poems have over them a kind of idling arbitrariness, offering their elements as a profound conjunction of secrecies one can't quite define or evaluate. One doesn't feel, however, that Mr. Ashbery has been at great pains to fabricate these puzzles; on the contrary, this manner of writing seems perfectly natural to him, which must, I suppose, qualify him as an original of some sort…. Wallace Stevens … presides over Some Trees in many of his most tiresomely precious surface mannerisms, and little of his incomparable linguistic surety and tact. Though Mr. Ashbery enjoys a real facility with language, and is able to handle difficult forms, like the pantoum and the sestina, with remarkable ease, his poems amount to nothing more than rather cute and momentarily interesting games, like those of a gifted and very childish child who, during "creative play period," wrote a book of poems instead of making finger paintings. If one had no acquaintance with other poetry than Mr. Ashbery's, one would believe there were nothing more to the art than a vague, somewhat precious and connoisseurish liking for words and the puzzle interest of working them into difficult patterns.
James Dickey, "John Ashbery" (1957), in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, 1968, pp. 58-60.
John Ashbery is one of the most original of contemporary poets. His … poems … are full of startling metaphors and fresh juxtapositions of words and perceptions. He keeps pushing the limits of language; he lives on the most thinly held, the most dangerous, frontiers. His impatience with the merely remembered phrase is evident in every line, though he occasionally uses a cliché to evoke a standard response which he then swamps with irony….
Ashbery's weakness is a curious opaqueness, at times, that comes from tenuousness or paucity of subject matter. But he comments—tangentially—on many familiar themes….
Technically, Ashbery is in debt to projective verse, for he works in free forms even when he invokes the "spirit" of the sonnet, canzone, or pantoum.
Stephen Stepanchev, "John Ashbery," in his American Poetry Since 1945 (copyright © 1965 by Stephen Stepanchev; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1965, pp. 188-90.
John Ashbery is the Sphinx of the generation. Not only are all of his poems enigmas or simply impossible to understand but they appear to promise esoteric wisdom one finds nowhere else in American poetry. Fellow poets, critics and students admit to despair at ever discovering the key (if one exists) to the riddle of the poems in The Tennis Court Oath (1962) and Rivers and Mountains (1966)…. Each [single poem] proves cryptic, puzzling, unique.
One quality most of Ashbery's poems share, on the other hand, is something like the peculiar excitement one feels when stepping with Alice behind the Looking Glass into a reality bizarre yet familiar in which the "marvelous" is as near as one's breakfast coffee cup or one's shoes being shined by an angel in the barbershop. In an Ashbery poem the marvelous is, in fact, the cup and the shoes—and the angel. His gift is to release everyday objects, experiences and fragments of dream or hallucination from stereotypes imposed on them by habit or preconception or belief: he presents the world as if seen for the first time. But the problem is: each poem is the first time in its own way unlike any past or future Ashbery poem. One way to read an Ashbery poem, it seems to me, might be to remember all one has felt or learned about poetry, including his poems—and then forget it and let the poem at hand do its own work.
But what accounts for the peculiar, chilly absence of feeling in almost every one of his poems? One receives no sense or awareness of the man whose voice one hears. The Sphinx is invisible. Yet the effort and energy in the act of editing or suppressing personal feeling is terribly evident. At times, this act seems almost heroic. Ashbery appears to silence or make a sacrificial victim out of the traditional poet in himself (he is perfectly capable of writing good traditional verse as his first collection Some Trees (1956) demonstrates) in order to present a reality for our contemplation which is the everyday one but seen by an angel who has no emotional investment in either people or fried bats or blind dogs or Italian hair or air pollution or forestry or slacks or peaches or poems. The puzzling thing is: angels love, it is said. In many of Ashbery's poems, one hears only elusive intimations that his angel may be looking for love—but of what kind or from whom one cannot know.
Paul Carroll, in his The Poem in Its Skin, Follett-Big Table, 1968, pp. 207-08.
["The Double Dream of Spring"] is Ashbery at his best, with all his characteristic difficulty, but also with his humor and his lyric gift. That cliché (making the rounds) is coaxed alive by the strange sad comparison with the seasons. Ashbery performs what he then identifies, "dazed waking of the words," eventually "living into them." So, most of the poems in this book perform discoveries, satisfied with nothing merely accidental, nothing less refined than "fables that time invents/ To explain its passing."
I suspect that Ashbery may think of himself as a kind of restorer, removing the varnish and grit from a canvas, or perhaps taking away the canvas entirely, asking us to think the shapes back into the painter's mind. More than any other poet writing now, he sees familiar objects and dimensions only as revealing an interior landscape. At that, most of the bric-a-brac is removed, and only the larger landmarks remain. "Spring Day," "Summer," "Evening in the Country," "Rural Objects"—these are his titles, but the suggested countryside and weather is always a way of discovering something else, rearranging "annihilating all that's made." Robbed of their solid properties, the smallest and surest words become part of a new geography….
One can't ignore the difficulty of these poems, deliberately forcing the reader to learn something like a new musical scale. The only way to train for them is to read them, discovering half-way through one of his volumes that you have learned the language. His is a perilous method, demanding that the poet take us with him to the clear regions he describes, or at least convince us—as Ashbery does, not always, but often, in his best poems—that he has been there himself. "The Double Dream of Spring," his fourth book of verse, strikes its own special note; it is less opaque, more aware of the melancholy difficulties of withdrawal and of getting the final pleasure from sealing in experience….
[For] all his French qualities—some of these poems have been first written in French and translated back to English—Ashbery's are very American poems; they are haunted by the late and great poems of Wallace Stevens, though further in retreat. His ecstasies are often willed and stern, and though it may seem strange to say so, his difficult manner is meant to lead, in its odd sophistication, to something as direct and liberating as the command of Thoreau: "Simplify! Simplify!"
David Kalstone, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 5, 1970, pp. 5, 21.
Regrets always stir lightly in Ashbery's poems. The Doris Day of modernist poetry, he plays nasty Symbolist-Imagist tricks on his audience while maintaining a façade of earnest innocuousness….
It's hard to believe that a "school," however insignificant, could be founded around a poet who writes lines [that] … have about as much poetic life as a refrigerated plastic flower….
Ashbery's failure is the price he has paid for uncritically accepting the Symbolist-Imagist esthetic. The contrived image and the pseudo-profound symbol may enable a poet to continue his poem, despite the flaccid state of his emotion…. But such a continuation may, in fact, embody a kind of poetic dishonesty.
Ashbery is one of the inheritors of Eliot's Symbolist Waste Land. Eliot, at least, was honest about the agony and emotional barrenness he tried to describe. Ashbery, a professional mindblower, inhabits a Technicolor Waste Land where he seems to feel completely at home.
John W. Hughes, "Insights and Oversights in the Poetic Vision," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1970 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, August 8, 1970; used with permission), August 8, 1970, pp. 33-5.
Ashbery's poems [in The Double Dream of Spring] are an active memorial to themselves, writhing in dissolute, shimmering lines without emphases or repetitions around the column their own accumulation raises…. And if it is true that in reading poems which are habitually a gloss on their own singularity we need all the help we can get, it is also true that Ashbery wants us to enjoy our helplessness all the way….
[Most] of these poems carry on in a language without the tension of negativity, without irony, without the invoked anxiety of a closed form. The lines run on, or peter out, they do not shore up the poem's energy by any kind of rhythmic or musical constant: the poem is endlessly obliging, but under no obligations…. Language in Ashbery's prodigious work is not wielded to convey the disciplinary, punitive passion which has been the art's contribution and resource in the past; it is intended rather—and manages—to convince by letting things alone….
[The] great innovation of Ashbery's poems is that they do not explain or symbolize or even refer to some experience the poet has had, something outside themselves in the world, something precedent. The poems are not about anything, they are something, they are their own creation, and it would be fair to say that the world is, instead, a comment on them, a criticism of them.
Richard Howard, "Sortes Vergilianae," in Poetry (© 1970 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the editor of Poetry), October, 1970, pp. 50-3.
A blurb on the jacket of A Nest of Ninnies, a novel by James Schuyler and John Ashbery, seems to suggest that the fact that it is a collaboration shines through its prose, yet it seemed to me that this work possesses a great unity of style that does not betray the mark of two authors. The importance of its being a collaboration lies more in its structure, or lack of it, for it is based on a very loose plot which serves as a sort of scaffold on which its endless comic incidents and language unwind. The most striking thing about the novel is its texture, which is immensely hilarious and immediate, but which keeps effacing everything which has already occurred, so that the reader is constantly losing his way only to recover it after someone offhandedly drops a vital piece of information. In this, the novel seems to resemble those of Ivy Compton-Burnett, where a veil of urban chit-chat conceals the terrifying events occurring behind the scenes—only here the concealed events are commonplace and unimportant except to the characters momentarily engaged in them.
But A Nest of Ninnies is first of all an extremely funny novel…. The characters proceed in an endearing, goofy fashion, moving confidently along slightly outlandish lines…. [The] disarming thing about the ninnies is that despite their apparent vacuity they live pretty much like most of us do—and not by default either, but by paying close attention to the details of their lives. That such scrupulousness could result in such a feeling of vacancy when assessed from a distance suggests that the situation in which we and the other ninnies find ourselves may be either more earth-shakingly banal than we know, or an unrecognized heaven.
John Koethe, "Freely Espoused," in Poetry (© 1970 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), October, 1970, pp. 54-9.
I read each new book by John Ashbery with the same puzzlement and fascination. Ashbery's finely tuned style never lapses into the commonplace. Every poem creates a mood of density and discretion, which is almost magical. And yet one never knows quite what the poems are about. His fine elaboration of images and arguments forms a concealing net, a sort of camouflage that works not so much by covering over as by fascinating, so that one forgets to pursue one's hunger for logic amid the glories of pure language. Not since Hart Crane has an American poet made difficulty so thoroughly into a means of expression….
No poet in America resembles Ashbery, although a number of contemporary French poets, such as Michel Deguy, Marcelin Pleynet and Denis Roche, possess a similar gift for lyric abstraction. Ashbery lived for almost 10 years in Paris, and knew these poets well. Yet they are, in fact, more likely to be his disciples than the reverse, since Ashbery's hermetic style began to develop with his first book, and came fully blown almost 10 years ago in [The Tennis Court Oath].
Paul Zweig, "Difficulty as a Means of Expression," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 9, 1972, p. 4.
In his previous collection, The Double Dream of Spring (1970), it was apparent—no, let us say it was apprehensible, that Ashbery's poems carried on in a language without the tension of negativity, without the invoked anxiety of a closed form. In short, or at length, the poems were moving toward—and some had already moved right in on—prose, an utterance unpoliced if not unpolicied (the policy turning out to be "to keep asking life the same question until the repeated question and the same silence become answer"), innovative or advanced, as everyone keeps saying about this writer, because the lines were not wielded to convey the disciplinary, punitive passion which has always been the art's contribution and conventional resource….
As long ago as The Tennis Court Oath, Ashbery had operated by a prosody of intermittence and collage; [now, in Three Poems], for the same reason—to make poems which are, rather than which are about, the world—he invokes a poetics of continuity and encirclement …, the enterprise now being to get it all in rather than to leave it all out, as in the notorious "cut-up" poems like Europe of over a decade ago. That is why Three Poems must be in prose, the sole medium capable of cancelling itself out, of using itself up: The texts must be capable of proceeding without John Ashbery. How perfectly he knows this!
Richard Howard, in Poetry (© 1972 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), August, 1972, pp. 296-98.
The pronounced diastole of hope and despair that runs through John Ashbery's Double Dream of Spring is beautifully described at the beginning of "Spring Day" … The problem Ashbery sets himself in his adventurous and restless poetry is the description of the journey through "so many phases" of this alternately hopeful and despairing self. But there are many Siren calls on the voyage of description and definition: the dangerous encrustations of history and language, ritual and habit, are omnipresent, and often omnipotent, in Ashbery's world….
Ashbery's impressive talents, serving so brilliant and skeptical a mind, make for a difficult poetry; and it would be condescending to his accomplishment, as well as disingenuous, to ignore the difficulty. In his intense explorations into the fictions not only of an essential self but also of an essential art, Ashbery's discontinuous meditations often become intensely private, and at times inaccessible. As with earlier "visionary" poets like Blake and of course the later Stevens, with whom Ashbery is often linked and from whom he happily steals in a poem like "Chateau Hardware," it sometimes happens that the world of familiar objects and relations recedes, "You" designates a somewhat solipsistic "I," and everyone and everything else becomes a dimly-perceived "them" and "it." On these occasions, Ashbery's poetry runs the risk of vanishing into the imagined world of its own favorite dream, the risk of consulting only with its own motions, as its ideas and tones constantly dissolve into and out of one another like a beautiful drift of clouds. It's as if, sometimes, the poetry were so private and self-sufficient that it could dispense with the irksome necessity of an audience.
Alan Helms, "Growing Up Together," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1972 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Fall, 1972, pp. 621-26.
As much as wonder and delight, there can be vacuum in words. This interesting, fluent work in prose-poetry [Three Poems] gamely engages Abstraction and The Universe head-on in a conversational stream of consciousness that eschews the usual dodges and defenses but alas gives up the strength to be found in Form as well. We are treated to buoyant visions, contradictions, homilies, well-formed meditations and jargon matrices—what the poet describes for good or bad as playing with enigmas until something like a solution emerges.
Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 49, No. 1 (Winter, 1973), p. xvi.
John Ashbery's Three Poems [is] a book whose symphonic sweep and richness take it far out of the realm of possibilities defined by most recent American poetry and place it in the great romantic line which runs from Wordsworth to Wallace Stevens. To begin with, except for minor works like Eliot's "Hysteria," the three poems which make up this new volume are prob-ably the only completely successful prose poems ever written in English, and in view of the scale on which they are executed ("The New Spirit" runs some fifty pages, "The System" fifty-three, and "The Recital"—a kind of coda—eleven pages) this alone would constitute an extraordinary achievement. But the technical breakthrough—which really amounts to nothing less than the invention of the form in English—is never made to call attention to itself: it is simply taken for granted, as if it represented a way of using words that had always been available and in plain sight.
In general, the language of the Three Poems is enormously restrained; it never strives for dazzling immediate effects, which would agitate the verbal surface excessively and consequently interrupt the sustained poetic discourse. The language does its work gradually, so that the appearence of the picture changes and moods succeed one another almost imperceptibly, without the reader's ever being aware of the precise moment of transformation. As a result, the poems have that quality of daydream associated with watching the clouds moving through the sky: the perfectly familiar and apparently textureless language is made to reflect changing inner states in the same way that the sky reflects changes in the weather, now darkening, now brightening, now becoming more turbulent, now flattening and becoming more serene. This fluidity of language is inseparable from the book's primary intention, which is to establish vital connections between ostensibly discontinuous realms of experience, to show how easily the ordinary may come to be seen as the transcendent, as incomparably rich and strange….
Clearly conceived under the pressure of the contemporary situation in which "certain younger spectators felt that all had already come to an end, that the progress toward infinity had crystallized in them," Three Poems may also be seen as representing the full realization of intentions first indicated (although on a much smaller scale) by the poet in earlier works like "The Suspended Life" and "The New Realism" (in The Tennis Court Oath), and developed further in "Clepsydra" and "The Skaters" (Rivers and Mountains) and the more recent "Parergon" and "Fragment" (The Double Dream of Spring). But this new volume marks more than an epoch in Mr. Ashbery's own career; it establishes itself as one of the dozen or so genuinely important books of poetry published in America in the past fifty years. In addition, it provides an experience rare in this century: the experience of meditative verse worthy of comparison with the best of Stevens and Auden and Eliot's Four Quartets. A magisterial achievement from the standpoint of technique, Three Poems is also an unforgettably beautiful book, one in which visionary power, while refusing to give up the world as it is, succeeds in bringing into being a new world of feeling in its place.
Stephen Donadio, in Commentary (reprinted by permission from Commentary; © 1973 by the American Jewish Committee), February, 1973, pp. 71-2.