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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2055

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award, a Guggenheim and MacArthur fellow, and chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, John Ashbery is one of the most honored writers of his generation. A new book by him is a literary event. It is important, however, in coming to a book by an eminent figure such as Ashbery—or a book by a poet being published for the first time—to set aside any preconceptions based on reputation or literary gossip, to read simply the words on the page—for that, as Ashbery and his followers have tirelessly insisted, is what poetry consists of: words.

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In his new book-length poem, Flow Chart, Ashbery takes as his subject the task of writing a long, open-form poem about the process of writing that poem. His self-reflexive, opaque verse attempts both to capture its source in the deep well-springs of consciousness and to comment on its genesis in an inchoate rush of language. The six parts of the poem alternate between text and commentary, although it is often difficult to distinguish between the two.

The poem’s title reflects the dominant metaphor of the “flow chart,” a contemporary image of administrative structure, hierarchy, and control or, in the definition quoted on the dust- jacket, “a schematic diagram…showing the progress of materials through the various stages of a manufacturing process.” The title implies the author’s own continual struggle to impose form and structure of his unwieldy materials. Ashbery’s poem belies the implication of its title: There is no clear organizational structure here, not even the abstract lines of power and control of a corporate flow chart. Instead, his muse seems so distractable that he is unable to focus on the act of composition, so he offers random phrases—moods and impressions without a coherent context.

Cultivating a postmodern style, Ashbery refuses to concede to his readers even the most elementary structural forms or internal coherence. He rejects narrative coherence, or any attempt to impose form or order on the free play of his imagination. His voice is constantly being distracted by new impressions impinging upon his consciousness, but he refuses to impose any artistic form on these impulses. As a result, his verse seems to expend itself in tantalizing but unconnected and incoherent verbal energy.

Ashbery is often associated with the “New York School” of poets—Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler—and like them he shares a fascination with the Abstract Expressionist painters of the postwar New York art scene. He tries to capture in language the abstract energy and bold techniques of the canvases of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline; or the nontonal sound compositions of Anton von Webern and John Cage. An art critic as well as a poet, Ashbery has consciously tried to incorporate the methods of the studio artist, using not form and color but the more inherently abstract medium of language. As a result, there is no attempt to create a shared discourse of meaning for poet and reader; instead, the reader finds an undifferentiated verbal collage of random impressions—clichés, banal phrases, trite expressions, vague and subjective generalizations about whatever comes to the poet’s mind at the moment of composition. Disdaining any pretense of meaning, Ashbery’s verse lapses into random verbal noise: “Alack he said what stressful sounds.”

Aside from their commitment to experiment and innovation, the poets of the New York School were decidedly unprogrammatic. What they derived from avant-garde music and painting was a “concept of the poem as the chronicle of the creative act that produces it,” or as O’Hara put it, the ambition “to be the work yourself.” Ashbery’s poems emphasize the fragmentary, tentative nature of experience, which in his view is too elusive to be captured in verse. His poetry is difficult precisely because it shuns the modernist conventions of form. His lines are dreamlike, nonsequential, solipsistic—an assemblage of personal associations, fragments of conversation, continually shifting excerpts of personal monologue. Ashbery’s verse seems to aspire to a kind of automatic writing, but, without an identifiable authorial presence or center of consciousness, there can be no coherent stream-of-consciousness rendering of the speaker’s experience. The poet refuses to locate the center of his poem within any identifiable context of meaning. There is no Mrs. Ramsay as in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927); no Leopold or Molly Bloom as in James Joyce’sUlysses (1922); no mythic protagonist as in William Carlos Williams’Paterson (1948-1958). It is as if, in the poet’s words: “sleep itself became this chasm of repeated words,/ of shifting banks of words rising like stream/ out of someplace into something.” His deliberate verbal disjunctions seem reminiscent of the dream sequences in Joyce’sFinnegans Wake (1939). Like a vaguely remembered dream, the lines inFlow Chart are elusive and opaque.

Discarding linear order or formal coherence, Ashbery’s poem invites arbitrary reading (or nonreading). Flow Chart can be read forward, backward, from the beginning, middle, or end with equal effect. Its purely hermetic verse can exasperate the most sympathetic reader. The lines tease the reader with their enigmatic sense of always being on the verge of revealing their meaning, but never quite doing so. The tedium and triviality of his verse in places invites parody. What is the reader supposed to make of the line: “Excuse me while I fart. There, that’s better. I actually feel relieved”? The reader may wonder, Have I missed something?

Perhaps the reader may find a clue to interpreting Flow Chart in the term “participation,” used by art critic Harold Rosenberg to discuss the Abstract Expressionist painters. Like the “action paintings” of Pollock or de Kooning, Ashbery’s poetry demands active participation from the reader literally to create meaning from the text. His lines are deceptively reasonable and straightforward, but meaningless. For example, part 3 ofFlow Chart begins: “That was the first time you washed your hands,/ and how monumental it seems now. Those days the wind blew only from one quarter.” Now taken separately, each of these utterances has some verbal coherence, but juxtaposed, they work against each other, since there are no apparent connectives or transitions from one assertion to the next. Lacking those verbal connections, a line often seems to implode or collapse into itself. These unconnected assertions follow upon one another continuously, in a mockery of coherent discourse. The reader must take what the surface of the poem presents—since surface is all there is—and provide the verbal context, semantic connections, and transitions out of the poem’s raw verbal material. There is no particular content or meaning implied, merely a sense of verbal activity. Can the poet really do with words what the Abstract Expressionist painters did with paint? Words, after all, are far more subtle, complex, and numerous than colors. Linguists have long assumed that there are an infinite number of meaningful verbal combinations possible. The reader needs some contextual clues in order to create meaning or even to sustain the reading act. The enormous psychological and aesthetic differences between viewing a painting and reading a work of literature would seem to mitigate against a purely abstract poetry. It may be possible, however, that Ashbery’s intention is to frustrate the reader by undermining any possibility of shared discourse, by deconstructing contextual meaning, so that there is no real possibility of interpreting his works. His lines actively subvert the reader’s expectations that the poem should mean something, that it should address itself to any sustained subject, concern, or feeling, and that it should do so in a logical and coherent manner. Logic and coherence are held up as verbal artifices imposed on inchoate experience.

Postmodernist critics may approve of Ashbery’s poetics of indeterminacy of meaning, but does that not imply that he has refused the artistic responsibility of imposing shape and form on his material? Is there not a certain duplicity here: Why bother to publish anything if the world is truly as random and as chaotic as he suggests? If linguistic or epistemological meaning is impossible, then why write about it? Perhaps the poet gives his game away in his lines: “Words, however, are not the culprit. They are at worst a placebo,/ leading nowhere…/ to banal if agreeable note-spinning./ Covering reams of foolscap with them won’t guarantee success.” These lines seem to be more a confession of nihilism or futility than any poetic affirmation. As the speaker remarks toward the end of Flow Chart, “A lot remains to be done, doesn’t it?”

One has to wonder whether Ashbery has ever put himself in the position of his readers attempting to decipher his work, or whether he feels any responsibility to his readers. Is Ashbery a poetic innovator or a master charlatan? Does he actually think this way, or does he deconstruct his thoughts as he writes? Is the poem supposed to represent snippets of overheard discourse, a collage of trivial, everyday comments made anonymously to no one in particular? Is it possible that in an Ashbery poem, as with the electronic media, “The medium is the message,” to borrow Marshall McLuhan’s phrase? Is Flow Chart the modern, electronic equivalent of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” the unedited rendering of images and fragments of cultural discourse? At times, Ashbery sounds like a modern Whitman, evoking the texture of ordinary life: “The baker comes out of his shop/ and smiles, rubbing his hands of his floury apron, and the wind/ picked up the veil off that woman’s face and revealed her beauty/ before she hastily jammed the hat down over her forehead and trotted swiftly off.” In other places, Ashbery’s verse seems to echo the meaningless babble of countless radios and television sets overheard from a distance. The verbal cacophony all but overwhelms the reader: “Afternoons at the store,/ and when bluish evening, the color of television/ in a window high above the street, comes on, who has the strength to/ judge it all according to a pre-existing set of criteria and then live with it.” We are awash in a sea of words and electronic images.

For all of its pretensions, Flow Chart represents much of what is wrong with academic poetry in this country. Ashbery’s career as a poet has been nurtured by the academy; in fact, it can scarcely be said to have existed outside the academy. From Deerfield Academy to Harvard, to Columbia, to New York University, he has been steeped in academic discourse. His career has been subsidized by university appointments, fellowships, grants, and other emoluments. As a result, he has never had to write for a popular audience or cultivate a broad readership. His work has never really been tested in a broadly competitive literary marketplace in which it would have to be in some way accessible to his readers. His poetry has never had any reason to be intelligible because Ashbery has felt no responsibility to a general audience. Instead, he has largely written for a small avant-garde following of fellow poets, critics, and academicians. He has been able to scorn the normal conventions of meaning because he has largely ignored his audience.

Flow Chart represents a literary art that has utterly lost its raison d’être. Beneath the worn mantle of outmoded decadence, it mocks itself and its readers. Ashbery’s poem represents a literary impulse that willfully and perversely denies any possibility of accessible meaning. A reader picking up Flow Chart for the first time might well agree with the poet’s disingenuous remark, “It’s the lunatic frequency this time.” But perhaps Ashbery manages, in his closing lines, to mute our frustrated incomprehension. In a modest disclaimer, he observes, “We are merely agents, so/ that if something wants to improve on us, that’s fine.”

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. September 8, 1991, XIV, p. 8.

Library Journal. CXVI, May 1, 1991, p. 79.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 23, 1991, p. 8.

The New Republic. CCIV, June 17, 1991, p. 42.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVIII, August 15, 1991, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, June 16, 1991, p. 12.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, March 22, 1991, p. 67.

San Francisco Chronicle. July 14, 1991, p. REV3.

The Village Voice. May 14, 1991, p. 65.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, July 14, 1991, p. 3.

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