“Houseboat Days” is a free-verse lyric divided into two irregular stanzas, one of thirty-nine lines and one of twenty-nine. The title “Houseboat Days” comes from a 1929 National Geographic article by Florence H. Morden, “Houseboat Days in the Vale of Kashmir,” a phrase that seems to mingle the exotic with the ordinary.
“Houseboat Days” begins with an unattributed quotation, shifting abruptly from someone speaking, apparently in the immediate present, to a sentence placing that immediacy in the past on “that day.” “Day” echoes the title and signals time as a subject of the poem. With the verb “walk,” the poem moves into a new present. The setting, where blue hills are visible from a vantage point “along the shore,” gives readers an anchor as they bob along among sentences and phrases that appear not to make much sense. John Ashbery likes to link abstract and concrete terms in humorous and disorienting combinations.
In the first stanza, the pain, “like an explosion in the brain,” gives way to banal clichés: “life is various./ Life is beautiful.” Then Ashbery makes the mock portentous observation that one who reads that cliché wisdom “Knows what he wants, and what will befall.” The second stanza comes back to pain, implied in the “Pinpricks of rain” falling again. The constantly oscillating mind is in danger of letting the rain wash away that moving houseboat window in the first stanza through which varied and beautiful life is visible. The meditation on pain tries to move toward hope, but it is only “The picture of hope a dying man” cannot have. Now the poem/houseboat floats toward evening and sleep, making it clearer that the poem’s overall shape is that of a houseboat day, from memories of breakfast china to the “pressure of sleep.” The day is summed up this way: “mornings of assent/ Indifferent noons leading to the ripple of the question/ Of late afternoon projected into evening.”
The ending leaves the reader with a slightly more comforting conundrum than pain and its automatic cancellation and return. Instead, the poet reassures the reader that “a little simple arithmetic tells you that to be with you/ In this passage, this movement, is what the instance costs.” This self-referring statement is blurred by uncertainty about who is to be with whom. However, that statement is followed by a peaceful specific metaphor, “A sail out of some afternoon, beyond amazement.” This elegant and “astonished” mood of peace is “not tampered with” by the gathering rain (or pain). Just as earlier pain carried its own cancellation, this peaceful mood now “protects/ Its own darkness.” The poem closes with the teacups with which it began, the point of departure for each houseboat day.
Ashbery’s free verse pushes toward the limits of prose. Deliberately avoiding both blank verse and the carefully measured lines of free verse, Ashbery seems to break his lines haphazardly, as if he were more concerned with the rhythms of his sentences and paragraphs than with the effects of pauses at the ends of lines. Thus the line breaks and the syntax of a sentence are sometimes at cross purposes. However, Ashbery wants to challenge readers’ expectations and explore the effects of conflicting and well as complementary relationships between poetic measure and sentence sense.
“Houseboat Days” is more about imagination than about consciousness in general. Abstract language makes up most of the first stanza, from “The mind” to “And then ithappens.” The passage says that insincere “reasoning on behalf of one’s/ Sincere convictions” leads to pain, whether the convictions themselves are true or false. Although pain immediately gives way...
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to “triumph over pain,” the triumph is paradoxical, “pain/created just so as to deny its own existence.” The word “pain,” which rhymes with “brain” in one of the poem’s few end rhymes, is repeated four times. Readers are then reminded of it again by “train” in the penultimate line of the first stanza and by “rain” in the opening line of the second stanza. Thus pain is played with, mocked and made light of, but it remains the poem’s strongest emotional reference.
Not only does the poem begin with an unattributed quotation clearly indicated as a quotation, but it also includes actual transcriptions of the words of Walter Pater, not set off by quotation marks but identified with “he said.” The pedantic-sounding passage in the first stanza, beginning with “that insincerity of reasoning” and ending with “At times,” is taken verbatim from Pater’s Plato and Platonism (1910). Another passage later in the same stanza also comes word for word from the same source. Ashbery’s appropriation of these passages gives him an opportunity to gently mock abstract diction while, at the same time, using it for his own purposes, significantly changing the contexts from the originals. It also allows him to absorb into his poem all kinds of language, from the colloquial “Poking ahead” to the foreign “trouvailles” (French for the noun “find,” including godsends and windfalls).
This inclusiveness, as well as the long lines, suggests a generosity of spirit, a willingness to accept anything. Ashbery, however, leaves out a great deal, carefully avoiding any details readers can clearly identify as personal or confessional and refusing to give readers specific information about places, times, and characters. As with Ashbery’s grammatical manipulation of tenses, this disorienting approach detaches the poem from conventional time and space.
With the publication of his twelfth volume of poetry, John Ashbery moves to the forefront of a select group of contemporary American poets. To be sure, his reputation as an artist of considerable technical resources, intelligence, and vigor has long been established. Nevertheless, among even his dedicated readers Ashbery has certainly been a puzzling master to classify. Sometimes critics have placed him with the so-called “New York School”—which is neither a school nor movement of poets as such, but more accurately a geographical grouping of selected writers with similar superficial characteristics. Among the characteristics which Ashbery shares with a number of these poets is his dazzling virtuosity; his calculated witty effects; his imitation in verse of certain modes of modern art, such as abstract-expressionism; and his attraction to “psychological” subjects. On the other hand, Ashbery is quite different from the New York poets in several significant ways: he is deeply in earnest, whereas the representative New York poets are conspicuously frivolous, often to the point of self-parody; and he is disturbing—a poet who cuts deeply to moral issues and wounds—rather than, like most of the New York group, genially entertaining.
What has confused some critics in their proper estimate of John Ashbery’s achievement is the artist’s seeming inconsistency. His work ranges from long, technically exacting verse of great distinction to minor experiments, clever pieces of self-indulgence. For example, his Three Poems (1972) is a volume of extended prose-poems that resemble personal essays. Similarly, The Vermont Notebook (1975) is, at least on the surface, a scrapbook of poetic trivia: catalogues of names and objects and pieces of satiric observation, with only brief passages of poetic intensity. Yet even these volumes, outwardly contrasting with a “serious” collection like the powerful Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), hint at the poet’s serious purposes. He appears to be working out a design, refining a language with which he can express his true voice as a poet.
With Houseboat Days, that voice is distinctly articulated. Ashbery no longer is experimenting to achieve effects; this method is sure, his communication direct—at least as direct as we are likely to expect from so complex and fertile an intelligence. The collection mostly of short or medium-length lyrics but including one long masterly dialogue, “Fantasia on ’The Nut-Brown Maid,’” demonstrates Ashbery’s maturity as an artist. Not a single poem lacks significance; and at least a dozen are permanent contributions to American poetry.
This is not to say that Ashbery is a poet easily accessible to the multitudes. A tragedian, he is aware of human limitations, especially the limits of romantic dreams. The sharpest tension in his verse is the paradox between complete receptivity to emotion and the failure, ultimately, to be moved. Like Wordsworth of the “Intimations Ode” or Coleridge of “Dejection: An Ode”—both poignant expressions of the loss of sensitivity—Ashbery treats as his major subject the similar theme of passive perception that cannot flame into joy.
Among contemporary writers, Ashbery most nearly resembles Philip Larkin. Like that poet, he believes that stoic resignation is the best policy for an individual who senses his own limitations. If the modern world forbids him romantic joy, a sensible poet will not, to be sure, gnash his teeth in romantic agony. But Larkin is considerably more cheerful than Ashbery. Indeed, the English poet seems somewhat relieved to understand, in view of the fact that he lives in an unheroic age, that he has no obligations to carry the burdens of world-sorrow. Ashbery, on the other hand, is disheartened. His stoicism masks an agony of despair. “I don’t set much stock in things,” he writes in “Houseboat Days,”
Beyond the weather and the certainties of living and dying:The rest is optional. To praise this, blame that,Leads one subtly away from the beginning, whereWe must stay, in motion.
The “beginning” he speaks about is existential: self-involvement. No matter how temptingly beautiful the external world may be for others, it is a sham for him. Like the disconsolate Prufrock, Ashbery’s speaker reflects that
The surge creates its own edgeAnd you must proceed this way: mornings of assent,Indifferent noons leading to the ripple of the questionOf late afternoon projected into evening.
But T. S. Eliot’s speaker is suicidal—that is to say, purposeful, though toward destruction. Ashbery’s speaker lacks the conviction even to advance in a purposeful fashion.
The ineluctable awareness that life is richly various—perhaps exciting—for other people, but is only an empty misery to the speaker is the center of Ashbery’s tragic vision.
To flash lightInto the house within, its many chambers,Its memories and associations, upon its inscribedAnd pictured walls, argues enough that life is various.Life is beautiful.
Or so life may be to the fortunate. To Ashbery the cliché that “life is beautiful” is an unspeakable irony. In “The Wrong Kind of Insurance,” his speaker, a high school teacher, comments wryly:
All of our lives is a rebusOf little wooden animals painted shy,Terrific colors, magnificent and horrible,Close together.
Ashbery’s vision of disaster overtakes him most terribly when he is most sensitively aware that others are, or ought to be, happy. Perception, therefore, colors circumstance. In “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” he writes:
Not what we see but how we see it matters; all’sAlike, the same, and we greet him who announcesThe change as we would greet the change itself.
Because “All life is but a figment,” he believes that we must choose what really matters to us. In “The Lament upon the Waters,” he says that “The problem isn’t how to proceed/ But is one of being. . . .” Yet “being” is not the same as living. In the “Fantasia,” a dialogue reminiscent of the manner (and intensity) of Yeats’s final poetry, “He” says that
Something has to beLiving, not everyone can afford the luxury ofJust being, not alive but being, at the center,The perfumed, patterned center.
To a poet who perceives but cannot fully feel joy, the distinction between “living” and “being” is a crucial one. In Three Poems he had earlier stated (in his usual elliptical fashion) the autobiographical problem. “All right. Then this new problem is the same one, and that is the problem: that our apathy always renews itself, drawing energy from the circumstances that fill our lives, but emotional happiness blooms only once, like an annual, leaving not even roots or foliage behind when its flower withers and dies.” Similarly, in The Vermont Notebook he had expressed the “problem”: “Nevertheless, there are a lot of people here who are sincerely in love with life and think they are on to something, and they may well be right. Even the dogs seem to know about it—.” But the poet, with a soul dead to feeling, can only witness the joys that others—dogs, “old ladies,” even the “horny grocer boy” who may be Pan in disguise—may feel.
Little wonder, therefore, that Ashbery’s persona is tragic, self-involved, ironical. The “I” of the poems is curiously impersonal. Although the poems seem to be written for the conventional reader, they are actually expressions of self. The reader, an intruder, listens to an intense inner debate. Ashbery’s verse is not really written for us; it is written for Ashbery. What appears at times to be self-indulgence on the part of the poet can be explained from the reader’s quite natural misinterpretation of the customary poet-audience relationship. The reader expects the poet to reach out to him: whereas Ashbery has merely “sold” the poem as a public performance. The poem belongs to the poet.
Without understanding this special quality of self-involvement, a reader cannot fully appreciate Houseboat Days—nor, for that matter, the other volumes of poetry. The landscape of Ashbery’s poetry is his mind. Although individual poems relate occasionally to time and place, he rarely focuses upon specifics that define either. One could scarcely learn from Houseboat Days what was happening in New York, in America, or the world in 1977. The world consists of Ashbery’s perceptions. As a result of this orientation, he is the least “public” of modern poets. He spares his readers the usual literary name-dropping and self-congratulation common in the work of other poets. Also he spares the reader autobiographical maunderings. For this reason, his poetry is remarkably impersonal (one might almost say sexless). Although individual poems may, in fact, be written for friends or in response to specific circumstances, the verses appear to be quite as dissociated from personalities as from matters of specific time and place. Instead, they concern the metaphysics of time and place. In the “Fantasia” he meditates:
But if each actIs reflexive, concerned with itself on another levelAs well as with us, the strangers who live here,Can one advance one step further without sinking equallyFar back into the past?
He has no answer, only more questions, doubts. “And who am I,” he asks, “to speak this way, into a shoe? I know that evening is busy with lights, cars. . . . That the curve will include me if I must stand here.” For the present, that thought is enough for Ashbery.
Yet the nagging question persists: Will the poet passively “stand here,” content that the curve of meaningless existence includes him in its ambiance? In what direction will his poetry flow? One must be cautious in predicting the course of Ashbery’s career. Certainly, Houseboat Days continues the reflective mood of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Even more meditative and philosophical, his recent volume explores the limits of perception, the dry reaches of sensation. With his extraordinary technical powers, Ashbery can write with seemingly effortless fluency, refining hard ideas until they gleam with a lustrous finish. Not since John Berryman has an American poet attempted on so bold a scale to think in song, to turn life into lyric. Like Berryman, Ashbery writes with spontaneous grace, an impressionist of despair; unlike Berryman, he avoids self-pity, self-laceration. Instead of composing elegies for his generation of poets, he graves modest elegies for his dying self. With each volume, the tragic tone intensifies:
And we may be led, then, upward through morePowerful forms of poetry, past columnsWith peeling posters on them, to the country of indifference.Meanwhile if the swell diapasons, bloomsUnhappily and too soon, the little people are nonetheless real.
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