Ashbery, John (Vol. 13)
Ashbery, John 1927–
Ashbery is an American poet, dramatist, novelist, editor, and critic. He has sustained an active interest in art and art criticism throughout his career and acknowledges the influence of abstract painting on his verse. Ashbery's poetry has often been criticized for what seems to be intentional obscurity. He has collaborated with James Schuyler on the novel, A Nest of Ninnies. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
I cannot avoid the judgment that the year's best book of poems is Ashbery's Houseboat Days…. The modish eccentricities that once weakly defended this great poet against tradition are now all but gone. Instead, a subtle rhetoric, masking itself in images of transparency and as a style of amazing limpidity, evades and reinterprets poetic tradition as sinuously and persuasively as did the rhetoric of Frost and of Stevens. Four poems in particular are likely to impose themselves upon the canon: "Loving Mad Tom," "Wet Casements," the Orphic elegy, "Syringa," and the very ambitious and mellow longer poem, "Fantasia on 'The Nut-Brown Maid'," which sustains comparison with the magnificent "Fragment" of "The Double Dream of Spring." "Wet Casements," which is as powerful as "Soonest Mended" in that volume, is a short meditation that immediately establishes its inevitability. Ashbery has suffered both from the aura of his supposed "school" and from the incomprehension of readers who weary too quickly of authentic poetic difficulty. The difficulty that remains in Ashbery's poetry is inseparable from its glory. (pp. 24-5)
Harold Bloom, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1977 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 26, 1977.
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Most of the poems in Houseboat Days which I can make out at all are … deliberations on the meaning of the present tense, its exactions and falsifications, its promises and reward. "There are no other questions than these, / half-squashed in mud, emerging out of the moment / we all live, learning to like it"—Ashbery is often painfully clear as to what he would wring from his evasive experience ("what I am probably trying to do is to illustrate opacity and how it can suddenly descend over us … it's a kind of mimesis of how experience comes to me"), and the pain is there in the tone, now goofy and insolent, then again tender and self-deprecating, vulnerable but not without its gnomic assertions ("It is the nature of things to be seen only once"), various but not without a consistent grimace ("It's all bits and pieces, spangles, patches, really; nothing / stands alone").
The position from which these proceedings flow and flare is rather the converse of what I read in the [Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror]; in that book, the problem was how to deal with the world—if it is all there, then how do I get into it, how do I find a place in what is already given and, if I am already there, how can there be room for all that besides? But in [Houseboat Days] there is a cool resolution about the dialectic of self and other; the poet seems more or less content (more or less sad) to be at grips with "this tangle of...
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Familiar notions about a poet's development won't quite apply to Ashbery's work. He doesn't return to objects, figures and key incidents which, as the career unfolds, gather increasing symbolic resonance. Nor do his poems refer to one another in any obvious way. Ashbery writes autobiography only inasmuch as he writes about the widening sense of what it is like to gain—or to try to gain—access to his experience. The present is the poem. "I think that any one of my poems might be considered to be a snapshot of whatever is going on in my mind at the time…." (p. 171)
In his images of thwarted nature, of discontinuity between present and past, Ashbery has turned his agitation into a principle of composition. From the start he has looked for sentences, diction, a syntax which would make these feelings fully and fluidly available. When he used strict verse forms, as he did in much of his first book, Some Trees, it was always with a sense of their power to explore rather than to certify that he was a poet. (pp. 171-72)
The long title poem of [Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror] is in every sense a major work, a strong and beautiful resolution of besetting and important problems. Ashbery had already broached these problems in The Double Dream of Spring, in which he characteristically approached the world as a foreigner, sometimes in the role of explorer, sometimes as a pilgrim, and almost always as...
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Ashbery is generally viewed as such a radical innovator, so thoroughly nouveau a poet, that perhaps the most surprising thing is how little his methods have changed during the intervening years. He has become somewhat more consistently good, and his work is now more allusive (not more illusive) and resonant than it was; essentially, however, we may say that this poet was precociously born nearly fully formed.
Ashbery is most notable, perhaps, for his legendary obscurity—that feature of his work which has led so many critics into calling him a surrealist. That the poet has spent so much of his life living and working in Paris seems to lend credence to this identification. An elementary distinction is in order, however. There are at least three varieties of surrealism—French, which is arbitrary and antirational, funny, and sexy; Spanish, which is deep, serious, and dark, relying more upon emotional than intellectual logic; and American, which is primarily verbal rather than conceptual—and thus is not properly surrealism at all, but a technical device…. American "surrealism" is a homegrown hybrid which owes its birth to such verbal innovators as Wallace Stevens and Gertrude Stein. It is not concerned with subconscious or preconscious parts of the mind, but involves the intentional and experimental replacement of certain words in a given syntactical pattern with other words that have just as much grammatical rightness being...
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John Ashbery offers the reader a sort of Pilgrim's Progress [in Houseboat Days]: one may indulge with him in the frivolities of Vanity Fair, or one may follow his very rigorous trains of thought about the nature of modern poetry itself. (p. 118)
This reader prefers the Roman side of Ashbery to the Rococo, for when he tries his hand at political bread and circuses, there is about it something sinister and arrogant. He nabokovs us, with a wild goose chase after the likes of Daffy Duck or a glut of the sugary confections of "Valentine." The gyrations of "Pyrography" grate less, but it's still a pastiche of Americana—a papier-mâché carousel. Ashbery takes his busman's holiday—it would seem—as a necessary escape from the stern task he has set himself.
To the persistent reader John Ashbery reveals himself as a poet of high moral seriousness, an epistemological poet no less, whose work explores the modes, limits, and grounds of true knowledge, and if he can help it, he really doesn't budge from this stance. It's hard work for him to clear away the tangles of language and root out old habits, so that the wood can be seen for the trees, and it's hard work for us, but rewarding, to read this sort of cultivated verse. It hones the mind. Ashbery discloses a moral stance similar to that of a Stoic…. With stringent logic he accents the given: "What is, is what happens." We are condemned to live in the...
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