Ashbery’s poetry is a battleground for literary critics: Some consider him the finest poet of the late twentieth century; some consider him an occasionally good poet whose work is often of questionable literary quality; some critics dismiss him as entirely worthless. The main reason for this is quite simple: His poems often do not make sense. Ashbery knows this; indeed, his work is deliberately impossible to paraphrase much of the time, and he willingly admits that many of his poems are meaningless, given the way in which readers and critics ordinarily try to turn poems into prose as an element of their value as art. It is possible, for example, to identify certain Ashbery poems as clearly nonsensical. What confuses the issue is the fact that many of his poems are a teasing combination of what looks like sensible prose or poetry mixed with passages of seemingly arbitrary confusion. It is not a matter, however, of Ashbery’s being unable to speak clearly; it is a deliberate element in his work, which he not only defends but also espouses as having literary and intellectual merit.
Perhaps the best way to approach the matter is through two ideas: that art in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, particularly the plastic and aural arts, has been strongly inclined to move toward the nonrepresentational, and that Ashbery has spent a considerable amount of his time as an art critic, supporting the most experimental members of the American school of abstract expressionism in painting. Throughout his career as a commentator on contemporary painting, he has been a great admirer of Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Jackson Pollock, and he has had an equal enthusiasm for the radical musical compositions of Arnold Schoenberg, John Cage, and Anton von Webern.
The history of art in general shows a close alliance between the artistic object and the world as it is generally perceived. In the mid-nineteenth century, particularly in painting and sculpture, the idea developed that the artist need not necessarily attempt to represent reality but could elaborate on it. That movement, which begins in Impressionism and moves on to cubism and ultimately to variations on the abstract, had, by the time of Ashbery’s coming of age, been fully manifested in many of the arts. The most difficult of the arts to so manipulate has been the literary art, simply because the basic materials—the word, the sentence, and the paragraph—are by their very nature rational. Color or sound may be used arbitrarily; words are another matter. The attempts to break the literary arts away from reality have been much more difficult—although not impossible, as the work of writers such as Franz Kafka and dramatist Samuel Beckett have shown.
Poetry, too, has had some success in repudiating sense. Poets such as T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Wallace Stevens, all of whom influenced Ashbery, are often very difficult to understand. The difference between them and Ashbery lies in the fact that there is some confidence in the fact that close study of these poets’ work usually allows the reader to break the code to get at what the poet is trying to say, however densely it may be expressed. With Ashbery it is not quite so simple; often he is clearly not expressing himself in a way that can be turned into sensible prose.
Ashbery is a poet of philosophic concern. He writes about the problems of life as human beings live it. That kind of poet is traditionally expected to express metaphysical questions, large or small, in elegant verse form and complicated imagery in which one metaphor leads reasonably to another and another; they ultimately lead to some sort of insight into the problem. The aesthetic pleasure lies in the poet’s use of language, metaphor, and structure, all eventually making sense, if often on a very specific plane of intelligence....
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