Ashbery, John (Vol. 15)
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. An experimental poet, Ashbery writes verse characterized by obscure syntax and elusive imagery. He has collaborated with James Schuyler on a novel, A Nest of Ninnies. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Ashbery's resource has been to make a music of the poignance of withdrawal. So, in [As You Came from the Holy Land], the "end of any season" that concludes the first stanza is deliberately too partial a synecdoche to compensate for the pervasive absences of the ironies throughout the stanza. Ashbery's turnings-against-the-self are wistful and inconclusive, and he rarely allows a psychic reversal any completeness. His origins, in the holy land of western New York state, are presented here and elsewhere in his work with an incurious rigidity that seems to have no particular design on the poet himself, characteristically addressed as "you." The next stanza emphasizes Ashbery's usual metonymic defense of isolation (as opposed to the Stevensian undoing or the Whitmanian regression), by which signs and impulses become detached from one another, with the catalog or census completing itself in the reductive "writing down of names," in which "down" takes on surprising difference and force. The third stanza, one of Ashbery's most radiant, marks the poem's daemonization, the American Counter-Sublime in which Ashbery, like [Wallace] Stevens, is so extraordinarily at home. Ashbery's mingled strength and weakness, indeed his deliberate pathos, is that he knowingly begins where Childe Roland ended, "free to wander away" yet always seeing himself as living "the history of someone who came too late" while sensing that "the time is ripe now." Studying his...
(The entire section is 476 words.)
The first few books by John Ashbery contained a large proportion of a poetry of inconsequence. Borrowing freely from the traditions of French surrealism, and from his friends Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch, Ashbery tried out a fairly narrow range of voices and subjects. Subject matter, or rather the absence of it, helped form the core of his aesthetic, an aesthetic that refused to maintain a consistent attitude toward any fixed phenomena. The poems tumbled out of a whimsical, detached amusement that mixed with a quizzical melancholy. This aesthetic reached an extreme with The Tennis Court Oath (1962), a book in which no poem makes even the slightest attempt to marshal a rational context or an identifiable argument. Line follows line without the sheerest hint of order or apparent plan…. With the exception of The Tennis Court Oath, Ashbery's first four commercially published books (the others are Some Trees , Rivers and Mountains , and The Double Dream of Spring ) included some poems with interpretable meanings and recognizable structures. But reading the first four books together, one is struck by how precious are those poems that do make poetic sense, surrounded as they are by the incessant chatter of the poems of inconsequence. Slowly, however, it appears as if Ashbery was gaining confidence for his true project, and, as his work unfolds, an indulgent reader can see how it needed those aggressively...
(The entire section is 2838 words.)
The manner [of "Fantasia on 'The Nut-Brown Maid'" in Houseboat Days] defies the matter. It is itself a "new season," a joyful performance of dazed thought. If the subject matter is "nothing," or the loss of what Wallace Stevens called "the first idea," the imagination's print on things, the language leaves its own unique print. The language itself is the "content," the difficulty we find in getting hold of the matter is the poetry. Here, as before, Ashbery goes for the music possible in confused logic and syntax. (His facility at this divine game is now marvelous.) His originality, in part, is to slip disorder into the very idiom of intellectual competence, with its distinctions and comparisons, its forensic pointings and persuasions. Urbane, outwardly reasonable, his procedures imply (with very little effort) an objective order of communication that the slippages among the clauses, the peculiarity of the comparisons, or the twists of tone and word subvert….
Now, on first reading [the poem's opening line] (or almost any other Ashbery passage), we catch the end of an idea here, another there; some deep, probable coherence suggests itself, but exact persuasion fails. Yet the lack of exact persuasion in our lives is what Ashbery is about. It is in its seeming to make less sense than it should that the magic of such writing consists. Maybe we are somewhat at sea as we read it, and straight "discussion" might prove a cove; but this...
(The entire section is 1468 words.)
John Ashbery is the first American poet to successfully carry out the possibilities of analogy between poetry and "abstract expressionist" painting. He has succeeded so well for two reasons: he is the first poet to identify the correct correspondences between painting and writing; he is the first poet to explore that analogy who has possessed the skill to produce a first-rate "abstract-expressionist" poetry, a poetry which is as beautiful and sturdy as the paintings of Willem de Kooning….
[It] is perhaps Ashbery's work as an editor, his ability to write good prose, which lends the paragraphs of his verse their architectonic quality, a relentless sense of being "about" something specific, of moving toward some point which, like the end of a rainbow, always just eludes us. In an Ashbery poem, we feel this mainly because the syntax of his sentences is so "reasonable" sounding, so adeptly connected over such long intervals. It is the syntax of the best expository prose style. Language, fit into such syntax, almost has to "mean" something definite….
It is Ashbery's genius not only to be able to execute syntax with this heft, but to perceive that syntax in writing is the equivalent of "composition" in painting: it has an intrinsic beauty and authority almost wholly independent of any specific context. Thus, in Ashbery's poetry, the isolation of verse on the page is analogous to the framing of...
(The entire section is 1492 words.)
Henry M. Sayre
[Much modern poetry shows a predilection for weak closure of line, an open-endedness which] values the "natural" (or its illusion) over the artful, the openness of the discourse of everyday life and the common man over the seemingly artificial, even elitist conventions of traditional, closed poetic forms…. The ultimate coherence and unity which poetic closure announces, the sense of a completed and whole design of lasting weight and significance that it prompts, has increasingly come to be regarded as fraudulent—if not fraudulent, then at least frivolous. (p. 39)
The "open" poem is, from [the point of view of American New Criticism], an "anti-poem" because it is not a self-contained text, an organic whole, a completed entity. In all sorts of ways it reaches beyond itself. It demands a different kind of reading than the New Critic brings to it. What I would like to do here is look briefly at the poems of John Ashbery whose work is almost universally abhorred by those of New Critical persuasion; I would like to look particularly at his endings—the ends of lines, the ends of poems, and even the ends of three of his latest volumes, The Double Dream of Spring (1970), Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), and Houseboat Days (1977)—to see if we can define what different mode of reading his work might require. Ashbery's endings suggest that a new kind of prosody has overtaken us, that the formal problem...
(The entire section is 1425 words.)
For a number of years John Ashbery has been tackling the long poem…. [In] As We Know Ashbery has come up with his most original solution to this technical problem and one best suited to the idiosyncracies of his genius. The new book opens with "Litany," a 68-page poem printed in two separate columns; as the author's note puts it, "The two columns of 'Litany' are meant to be read as simultaneous but independent monologues." One reads a bit of one, then of the other, and every so often one stops to compare adjacent passages.
If I say this form is best suited to his genius, I do so because I believe it is the ideal transcription of Ashbery's sense of things: a mental space humming with signal and noise, focus and blur…. [Consciousness] is before everything else a continuous activity of decoding, one neither intense nor mild but perpetual and more or less absorbing. Most literature, however, has chosen not to imitate this aspect of our nature but rather to fashion a world far more consistently meaningful than the one we live in. Ashbery, in spite of his reputation as an arcane and experimental writer, may be the first realist our poetry has produced.
"Litany" is in three sections. The first seems to be loosely concerned with time and that powerful but unthinkable marker of time, death…. The way we defend ourselves against the idea of mortality is to drown out with neural static those few moments when we hear...
(The entire section is 697 words.)
John Ashbery's [As We Know] is certainly his most ambitious [collection]; it may even be his best so far. My tentativeness stems from its being two books at once. First comes Litany, a highly problematic and at moments magnificent long poem …, in two quite separate columns. Or is it two long poems resolutely refusing congress with one another, while running side by side? Then come 40-odd shorter poems, lyrics, and meditations, of which at least the following are anything but problematic, and indeed are superb: "Silhouette," "As We Know," "Flowering Death," "My Erotic Double," "Knocking Around," "Late Echo," "Tapestry," and "The Sun." Those eight poems stand with the best of Ashbery, and one in particular, "Tapestry" …, is of the eminence of "Soonest Mended" in The Double Dream of Spring and "Wet Casements" in Houseboat Days. There are not many contemporary poems that deserve the old but crucial phrase: "inexhaustible to meditation." These do….
[Litany is a] maddening but very amiable and accomplished poem. What is maddening has not come suddenly to Ashbery, at the age of 52.
It was always there, in an only apparent discursiveness that played at being a willful randomness. But, as before, Ashbery is neither discursive nor random. He is as intensely figurative a poet as Whitman and Stevens were, and like these ancestors he wears a mask of the casual extemporizer which no reader...
(The entire section is 465 words.)
Poets define their own historical moment by exhibiting their allegiance to some historical myth. John Ashbery … has chosen the myth of the Golden Age. Such an age can be named only when it is past. Ours, says Mr. Ashbery, is a Silver Age, an age of decline; and the title of his new book ["As We Know"] is a compressed statement of the regret that colors all his moods: We know too much; not enough remains for us to make or do. In a Golden Age, as Mr. Ashbery knows, we get "The Iliad," or "Song of Myself"—in a Silver Age, the curious felicities of Horace and the Alexandrians, or of Mr. Ashbery's recent work. He will, of course, puzzle some of his readers by regarding himself in this light: he has often seemed a poet steeled against misgivings, and too restless to hazard a backward glance….
The most sustained of Mr. Ashbery's meditations on "life in a Silver Age" is "Litany."… In the second column, which independently makes the better poem of the two, Mr. Ashbery calls for "a new school of criticism" to restore something of a departed luster to the moments of our lives. He wants criticism to rescue poetry for those who are "Not giants or titans, but strong, firm / Human beings with a good sense of humor," to help them "make some sense of their lives, / Bring order back into the disorderly house / Of their drab existences."
Generous as it is, the sentiment may seem a little shocking when it issues from a...
(The entire section is 746 words.)
On a first reading [of "Litany"] I read the left-hand monologue complete, all three sections, without even adverting to what was happening on the right-hand side of the page. Then the same for that side. On a second reading I switched from left to right at the end of each section. I can't report much difference. One can read each page as it appears, but that would be perverse, because the sentences rarely end with the page. The two voices are not as fully differentiated as the "He" and "She" of "Fantasia on 'The Nut-Brown Maid'" in Ashbery's Houseboat Days (1977), but the differences are enough to show that B is more ample, more opulent than A, more explicit, more in command of the feelings. A and B are my names, Ashbery doesn't give the speakers any names or differentiating marks. The two speakers could be one, in different moods or phases, but I choose not to think so.
A detour, first, otherwise I have no hope of making sense of As We Know…. [Let us imagine a poetic character walking alone by the sea], facing out and up to reality in the guise of the sea. Certain possibilities disclose themselves: the poet may, against great odds, find the reality of the sea so satisfying that he is content to apprehend it: or he may find it totally incomprehensible, and turn inland; or he may impose upon it his own vision, mastering it, or feeling that he masters it, answering one fact with a correspondingly imperious fiction…....
(The entire section is 1920 words.)