Ashbery, John (Lawrence)
John (Lawrence) Ashbery 1927–
American poet, novelist, dramatist, critic, and editor.
Ashbery is often considered by critics to be a "poet's poet," because of the difficulty his poetry presents to the average reader. The typical Ashbery poem thwarts the reader through its shifting viewpoint, non sequitur associations, and hyperconscious preoccupation with the writing process itself. Poetry, or poetry making, is the predominant theme of Ashbery's work.
Throughout his career, Ashbery, like others in the New York school of poetry with which he has been associated, has been strongly influenced by developments in other artistic media, particularly abstract painting and experimental music, notably that of John Cage, who inspired the long poem, "Litany."
Ashbery received three of poetry's highest honors in 1976: a National Book Award, a National Book Critics' Circle Award, and a Pulitzer Prize, for his collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. In his recent book, Shadow Train, Ashbery adapts the tight structure of a sonnet sequence to demonstrate his elliptical poetics.
(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 13, 15; Contemporary Authors, Vols, 5-8, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5.)
[The observations in Shapiro's essay are based substantially on interviews with John Ashbery, 1964–72.]
Ashbery was a connoisseur of [the French author Raymond Roussel] and began a doctoral dissertation on him but decided not to go through with it, although characteristically he collected many minute particulars about that grand eccentric. Thus the modulated parodies of narration in Rivers and Mountains may be associated with the labyrinthine parentheses of Roussel's poems and novels; this contagion of the parodistic tone seems to lead structurally to a "chinese box" effect or play within a play…. [In later works] Ashbery wittily employed another device of Roussel: the specious simile, "The kind that tells you less than you would know if the thing were stated flatly."… In lieu of the organic and necessary simile, Ashbery learned from the French master an extravagance of connection that leads one nowhere…. Ashbery is also a master of the false summation, the illogical conclusion couched in the jargon of logic and reminiscent of the false but rich scholarship of Borges…. (p. 17)
John Ashbery can properly be called a child of the muse of Rimbaud. In the somewhat unenthusiastic tones of the introduction to Some Trees, W. H. Auden also placed him in the tradition of Rimbaud's dérèglement de tous les sens. Contrary to Auden's expectations, Ashbery denies French poetry as a major...
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It seems time to write about John Ashbery's subject matter…. It is Ashbery's style that has obsessed reviewers, as they alternately wrestle with its elusive impermeability and praise its power of linguistic synthesis. There have been able descriptions of its fluid syntax, its insinuating momentum, its generality of reference, its incorporation of vocabulary from all the arts and all the sciences. But it is popularly believed, with some reason, that the style itself is impenetrable, that it is impossible to say what an Ashbery poem is "about." An alternative view says that every Ashbery poem is about poetry—literally self-reflective, like his "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror." Though this may in part be true, it sounds thin in the telling, and it is of some help to remember that in the code language of criticism when a poem is said to be about poetry the word "poetry" is often used to mean: how people construct an intelligibility out of the randomness they experience; how people choose what they love; how people integrate loss and gain; how they distort experience by wish and dream; how they perceive and consolidate flashes of harmony; how they (to end a list otherwise endless) achieve what Keats called a "Soul or Intelligence destined to possess the sense of Identity."…
[Ashbery] is a generalizing poet, allegorizing and speculating and classifying as he goes, leaving behind, except for occasional traces, the formative "world of...
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[Shadow Train] is endearing and exasperating in the same ways that all of Ashbery's poetry is. It reflects his great strengths as a writer: endless inventiveness, superb mimicry, artistic transformations of the banal into the beautiful. And it demonstrates his weaknesses as well: a certain preciousness, an absence of self-criticism, an artistic program that allows the manufacture of poetry almost at will and without inspiration. The problem of excessive length that sometimes mars Ashbery's most ambitious efforts is here neatly solved: since each section of Shadow Train is a poem in its own right, as in a sonnet cycle, the reader who experiences tedium can pass on to the next poem without much loss or guilt. The loose structure, formally pleasing, also invites browsing and skimming.
Indeed, I have always found skimming and skating to be the best means of enjoying Ashbery, which is not the admission of deficiency it might be in another writer. Since Ashbery works with surfaces, like a painter, reading him too closely or thinking too much about his content is missing the point. One of the poems in this sequence is called "Corky's Car Keys." If you imagine a character named Corky and start worrying about his car keys, you go right past the play on sound that is the real point. Similar earnestness will give you similar difficulties with other titles too, e.g., the inspired "Untitled," and "Indelible, Inedible." A friend of...
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[Shadow Train] is a sustained experiment with a new short form…. In the past, Ashbery's lyrical strengths were best exemplified by his long poems, but now he seems able to move just as freely in a briefer space. His work has an operatic air, entertaining us with a variety of cadenzas performed against pleasantly tacky backdrops. The actual sense of the action is elusive, as in opera, and one hardly cares, coming away with a comfortable feeling that the tone has somehow carried all the important meaning. Much has been said about Ashbery's polite evasion of any attempt to synopsize "plot" in his poems and certainly there are many mysterious passages in his verse….
Ashbery carries the old saw that "poetry is its own subject" to its limit. "Paradoxes and Oxymorons" claims to be "concerned with language on a very plain level. / Look at [the poem] talking to you." We dutifully look, but the trick seems to have misfired. "You miss it, it misses you." Ashbery scratches his head, pretending to consider what went wrong, all the time keeping up his professional patter like a magician whose rabbit has gotten stuck in the hat…. Then he suddenly turns on the reader. "I think you exist only / To tease me into doing it, on your level, and then you aren't there / Or have adopted a different attitude. And the poem / has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you." Despite its paradoxes (not to mention oxymorons), this seems relatively...
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If the New York poets are each as individual as New York taxi drivers, then with Frank O'Hara at the wheel we cruise through Greenwich Village with occasional side trips out to Fire Island. John Ashbery drives us down deserted back streets between huge locked warehouses with occasional glimpses of the harbor, then stops and soliloquizes about his driving, his poor sense of direction and the tricks perspective can play and asks us if we really want to go to the destination we had requested…. O'Hara is casual, open, revealing…. Ashbery can be formal, hermetic, secretive: he often slides a deliberate barrier between himself and his readers like the glass shield protecting a New York taxi driver from his passengers.
In Ashbery's poems there are constant echoes of other, secret dimensions, like chambers resounding behind hollow panels of an old mansion rumored to contain secret passages (which our guide emphatically denies exist). Ashbery both hunts for these secrets and tries to conceal them…. A heretic among contemporary poets who glory in "confessional" poetry, Ashbery even questions the value of "openness."
Often these secrets are conveyed in code, secret messages hidden in the everyday. Code is a metaphor for the special language of poetry, into which Ashbery ciphers his secrets. He outlines two of his main methods of coding: "I thought if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came...
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Shadow Train will change no one's mind about Ashbery's merits as a poet. His admirers will praise the new-found discipline and concentration in this collection of sixteen line, "sonnet-like" poems. His detractors will grumble about the emperor's new briefs. And the rest will continue to play Pontius Pilate washing their hands of the whole matter. Yet Shadow Train is an interesting book that can give a careful reader a new understanding of Ashbery's strengths and weaknesses as a poet.
Part of the pleasure of reading Ashbery comes from the variety of words, images, moods, and styles he can fit so seamlessly into his work. He continually surprises one with things not usually found in a poem. Shadow Train encompasses everything from Warren G. Harding to the Keystone Kops, from the idea of God to the "Image of the Little Match Girl." He can move convincingly from pathos to low humor in the same stanza or turn a piece of slang into a remarkable metaphor. Yet sometimes this diversity works against him. He often indulges in gross sentimentality, and though he tries to distance it with an ironic title, as in "Some Old Tires," the burden of his clichés sometimes sinks the entire poem….
[But] these obvious lapses are rare. Ashbery's pervasive sentimentality is usually better balanced by flashes of wit or at least the pleasant chiaroscuro of deliberate ambiguity…. His usual style is nostalgic but in a...
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Helen McNeil, a British critic writing in the Times Literary Supplement, has said that "since the death of Robert Lowell, the title of most important American poet has been on offer to John Ashbery." Countless other critics have registered similar judgments. And as if all that were not enough, the government of the United States commissioned Ashbery to write a poem for the bicentennial. Ashbery responded, with all due mockery, with "Pyrography."…
Ashbery's famous "difficulty" … has not seemed to pose an obstacle to his acclaim. This is partially due, no doubt, to the cachet difficult poems have had recently (the less one understands a poem, the better it must be), but mainly to his incredible perseverance: Ashbery's latest book, Shadow Train, is his tenth in under twenty years. His seemingly immaculately planned career is, as he says in two telling lines from a poem in this book, "too perfect in its outrageous / Regularity to be called to stand trial again."
If Ashbery had ever been on trial in the past, it was because his method was not understood. Once one grasps that method—as well as its philosophical sources and influences—one understands how the poetry is generated (although not what it is about). As Ashbery himself once noted, rather than dealing specifically with problems, issues, or feelings, his method seeks to reproduce "the actions of a mind at work or rest." A typical Ashbery poem...
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[One] might caution the reader that Shadow Train is by no means the best place to start in reading Ashbery, as it occupies a curious position in the evolving body of his work. This collection … marks another peculiar twist in a protean career, another of the seemingly willful swerves from his natural pre-dispositions that discomfit his admirers almost as much as his detractors. Ashbery's previous book, As We Know, while it contained a number of poems as brief as one line apiece, nevertheless presented him in one of his freest, most expansive moods, particularly in "Litany," a poem long and discursive by almost any standards. Shadow Train comes then as something of a counter-move to the magnificent sprawl of "Litany," a book rigidly suited up in an unvaried form, a steady march of quatrains through fifty poems on pages numbered I through 50. Ashbery has never shown a particular aptitude for sonnetlength poems, and Shadow Train is of course something of a sonnet sequence; he has always been most comfortable in those fixed forms, like the sestina, whose spurious, exoteric nature seems to mock and comment on itself almost without the poet's help. The sonnet had seemed simply too short, seemed to afford too little space for the vast spiralling, ranging, or redoubling movements that are the best part of Ashbery. The decision to write a book of sonnet-length poems shows him again intent on testing his limits, moving antithetically...
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