John Ashbery American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4057

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...

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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. Deciphering the secret, forcing the images to connect, leads to the secret in the center, and that has been the tradition of the poetry of ideas through the centuries (if somewhat more intensely formidable in the hands of twentieth century poets).

In Ashbery’s case, however, the contemplation of the mysteries of life is complicated by the pose of diffidence, the not uncommon late twentieth century idea that one cannot know the truth. It is made even more difficult by Ashbery’s constant determination to write poems about the diverse and devious experience of trying to discover truth in the making of a poem. Many of his best poems begin with the same kinds of questions about life which other poets address, but they quickly become studies of how difficult it is even to keep the subject straight. They usually conclude without the question being answered, and often with the clear suggestion that no answer is possible, at least through the medium of poetry.

An added difficulty lies in the way Ashbery uses figures of speech such as metaphors and similes. The trained reader expects that such poetic improvisations will illuminate the subject and will have some clearly logical connection to it. Ashbery often starts with figures that elaborate on the subject but quickly allows images into the poem that seem irrelevant. This practice is an aspect of his idea that his poems should be a record of how thoughts on the subject filter through his own mind and that the seemingly irrelevant images are legitimate because they are part of how his mind jumps in and out of the subject—how one thing leads, not necessarily logically, to another.

The poet bent on being clearly understood filters out the arbitrary thoughts, giving his or her readers an edited version of how the poetic flow operates. Ashbery leaves everything in, and as a result much of his material seems off the topic; indeed, much of it is, although there is often a crazy tonal logic about these maundering intrusions, just as there is in his sometimes maddening inclination to mix pronouns, shifting without any warning from “I” to “you” to “he” or “she.” As a result, there is a feeling of constant flux, of spontaneity and witty vivacity, and a sense that the reader is implicated in the struggle to get things straight. Clarity, however, is only momentary and is often less important than the recording of the act of creation, however confused intellectually.

“The Skaters”

First published: 1964

Type of work: Poem

A poem about the difficulties and failures of the poetic process presented in the form of a confused journey through the alternatives open to the contemporary poet.

“The Skaters” has been sharply dismissed by many critics as being meaningless for the most part and being much less successful than the later poem “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (1975) as an attempt at dealing with the problem of the poem in the late twentieth century. Even its supporters are less enthusiastic about it than they are about “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” in part because it is a much more difficult poem. On the other hand, it can be explicated, but only in part, and the reader must eventually accept Ashbery’s refusal (stated more than once in the poem) to write what he considers the old-fashioned poem of sensible argument and appropriately obvious image.

If the best face is put upon the poem, as it has been by a few supporters of Ashbery, it can be read as his attempt to explain the difficulties of writing poetry of a new kind for an audience that expects philosophic poems to be clearly argued and intent on reaching sensible conclusions. The image of the skaters with which the poem begins can be seen as an example of the old style of art—graceful and skilled, but, significantly, going around in circles. This image will appear over and over in the poem as a reminder of how things used to be (at least for the poet), and against it is played out a search for a new way of dealing with reality.

The poem begins innocently enough, with a rather inflated description of the sight and sound of ice skaters. It may be a nod of compliment to the stylistic inclinations of Wallace Stevens, a poet much admired by Ashbery, It may, however, seem somewhat pompous in its fastidiousness, which would not be inconsistent with the main idea of the poem that art of that kind is no longer viable. Whatever the case (and with Ashbery much is left up to the reader), the skaters lead to a memory of childhood ribaldry and to the suggestion that little of the past is worth keeping, and very much less is retained.

Even music, however varied in form, has little long-lasting emotional purchase, and this statement leads to the virulent repudiation by the poet of any ability to express the emotional aesthetic that is so often expected of the poet: “’I am yesterday,’ and my fault is eternal./ I do not expect constant attendance, knowing myself/ insufficient for your present demands/ And I have a dim intuition that I am that other ’I’ with which/ we began.”

Time is seen as constantly fleeting, and nothing has much meaning in the long run: “Thus a great wind cleanses, as a new ruler! Edits new laws, sweeping the very breath of the streets/ Into posterior trash.” There are suggestions that these changes might make for a new optimism, but ultimately all fails. The section ends with the suggestion that the particular is irrelevant and that if there is to be poetry, it will be less perfect in its forms or conclusions:

Hence, neither the importance of the individual  flake,Nor the importance of the whole impression of  the storm, if it has any, is what it is,But the rhythm of the series of repeated jumps,  from abstract into positive and back to a  slightly less diluted abstract.Mild effects are the result.

The second section, however, continues the search into the romantic world of past poetry. For a time, it looks as if the imaginative dream might prevail, but difficulties occur, and the poet falls back into a kind of mild despair, recognizing that for him poetry is inadequate not only to discover meaning in life but also to deal with the serious social difficulties of the world. There are also problems with the poem of meaning, simply because Ashbery allows his mind to wander through a maze of images that may seem quite incomprehensible.

The third section reveals a strong stylistic change. A kind of stolid, commonsense, step-by-step approach to the problem is tried in order to discover the secret of life and its relation to poetry. Some critics have seen touches of travel literature in the material, and it is a section in which adventures are essayed, if kept on a lower level than those of the second section by the insistence that only one thing, death, exists. The excursion into nature leads into a widening of experience, with Romantic implications, but it all ends with soaked clothing and the danger of the mundane head cold—the banality of real life. There is no room for the imagination; no one is interested in adventure, and the poet sees himself at the end “like a plank! Like a small boat blown away from the wind.”

The fourth section is the easiest to understand, as it is a kind of short story of depressed country life, a metaphor for the dreariness, the increasingly unimaginative particularities, of common experience in which, significantly, the trout (like the skaters) are circling aimlessly and the pump, which might be seen as a source of refreshment, is broken. The ending is particularly flat; the constellations, if rising in perfect order, have an arbitrariness about that order that suggests a meaningless universe, one in which the old kinds of poetry of metaphysical optimism have no place.

Ashbery is trying to create something like an abstract poem in which the accumulation of images supports the occasional moments of clear statement but with the kind of free-form looseness of association that has been so successful in abstract painting, in which objects do not necessarily mean anything specific. Instead, they add up to a sense of rightness that has very little to do with logic but much to do with an emotion which cannot be quite expressed in any other way. The poem is, in that sense, a metaphor for the failure of the old kinds of poetry to express the state of contemporary life, and the form it takes, a kind of surging, swaying movement in and out of sense and nonsense, is an example of poetic form imitating poetic meaning. It could be said that, in part, the form of this poem is its meaning.

“Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

First published: 1975 (collected in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1975)

Type of work: Poem

Ashbery contemplates the nature of the work of art and its relation to truth, memory, human souls, and the world in general.

“Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is Ashbery’s most popular and most critically honored poem, and it brings together some of the best and some of the most annoying elements in his work. From its beginning, it requires some basic knowledge of a specific painting that Ashbery (a well-known art critic) admires. Italian painter Parmigianino (1503-1540), whose real name was Francesco Mazzola, was one of the foremost mannerist painters. He produced a self-portrait, and in order to impress his Roman patrons with his technical prowess, he painted the likeness as it would appear in a convex mirror.

The poem begins with a charming, succinct description of the painting, rich with critical perception and including excerpts from comments that had been made about the work at the time of its presentation in the early sixteenth century. It is essential to remember that it is not a realistic portrait of the painter, as it is deliberately distorted as it would be in a convex reflection. This eccentric, tricky idea is consistent with the stylistic experimentations of mannerist painters, who often chose to present subjects in graceful distortion rather than attempt to record life with absolute accuracy.

The speaker in the poem is impressed in particular with the representation of the eyes, which are usually considered in art to give entrance to the soul. The eyes in this picture do not fully satisfy the speaker, however deftly they are painted, and it is this sense of failure to capture the soul which precipitates the main subject of the poem: How can one know reality, how does one record it in art or otherwise, given one’s limitations as a human being?

It becomes clear that however much he enjoys the painting, he senses its inadequacy as a representation of reality. The flatness of the canvas, however cleverly manipulated, militates against the kind of three-dimensional experience of life: “But your eyes proclaim/ That everything is surface. The surface is what’s there/ And nothing can exist except what’s there.” The problem of holding on to experience leads into a contemplation of past relationships and of how thin they are in the memory—how eventually everything sifts down into a kind of blurred mush without much significance. The poem juxtaposes the speaker’s consideration of the painting (and that of other critics) with contemplation of day-to-day experience, attempting to come to some conclusion about the relation between art and life. The way in which the portrait, in its convexity, reaches out at the same time it recedes leads to the conviction that “art” may not necessarily be a satisfactory haven for truth about reality.

There is, as a result, an intellectual and tonal tussle in the poem as the speaker shuffles between the experience of the flux of life, in which constant accumulation never makes much sense, and his admiration for the world of art which is able to select and to idealize. That admiration is continually eroded by his uneasiness as to the truth of art, as the inexorable push of time and experience diminish any certainty that art has much to do with life as it is ordinarily lived:

   This alwaysHappens, as in the game whereA whispered phrase passed around the roomEnds up as something completely different.It is the principle that makes works of art so unlikeWhat the artist intended. Often he findsHe has omitted the thing he started out to sayIn the first place.

Much of the poem is occupied with considering several different ways in which reality proves to be obdurate, not only in art but also in life. Ashbery tries to find some way in which the case for art can be made, and his comments upon the painting, and Parmigianino’s work in general, are a kind of tour-de-force example of creating poetry and art criticism at the same time. More difficulty will be confronted in dealing with the examples of how life slips and slides about, because it is there, in the main, that the images are often incomprehensible. The reader must give up any attempt to understand fully what is being said and accept a vague, dreamy sense of emotional rightness. Clarity in those passages comes and goes as the poet allows his mind to roam about in and out of rational focus.

What does become cumulatively clear is that Ashbery is not simply concerned with the painting, but with all art, including poetry. This is a major theme in his work: the inability of poetry to discover truth and to fix it once for all, because reality is always in flux and the work of art is static. Yet the poem goes even further in suggesting that Ashbery is also talking about the peculiar state of humankind—always searching for truth and always at the whim of constant change. Such a conclusion could be depressing, but in Ashbery’s poem there is a kind of genial, sophisticated acceptance. There is a celebration of humankind’s incapacity to “know,” which makes humans, in a sense, captives like the figure in the Parmigianino painting, slightly distorted and unable to escape.

“Mixed Feelings”

First published: 1975 (collected in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1975)

Type of work: Poem

The poet seems to be looking at an old photograph of some young women and imagines what they are like and how they would speak to him.

Ashbery’s finest work may be in his long poems, where the space gives him time to develop a sense of what it is like to attempt to deal with a specific, recalcitrant subject. A shorter poem, such as “Mixed Feelings” (from the volume Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror), while being a good poem, provides a kind of five-finger exercise in understanding Ashbery’s peculiar charms as a poet. The idea is a simple one. The poet either thinks he is smelling frying sausages while looking at an old photograph, or he is, in fact, doing so. It hardly matters. What does matter is his attempt to date the picture, which is not too difficult, because he recognizes the aircraft in the photograph as one used in World War II.

Some young women are leaning against it. He imagines their names, typically common names for women at the time, and thereby provides a perceptive confirmation of the fact that times change, as does the style in choosing names for children. He wonders how he would explain to them how much the world has changed in more than thirty years. Would they want to listen, he wonders, standing as they do with that smart knowingness of young women? Perhaps they would tell him to get lost, using the slang of the day. Perhaps they would rather go to a café for a cup of coffee. Ashbery is, in fact, slyly evoking the social world of wartime, when servicemen tried to pick up young women with a smart quip and were often rebuffed just as smartly.

Ashbery is not sure if his imagined setting is right. The picture reminds him of California, but his reference to the garment district suggests New York. The light looks western, and the idea of the aircraft is strongly allied to the Pacific Coast for him. The Donald Duck cartoon on the airplane is a lovely touch, and it was common for combat aircraft to carry some kind of cartoon on the fuselage. He wonders about the girls in the photograph, but he is not going to spend much time at it. In the end, he imagines that sometime he will meet young women like them in an airport lounge and that they will then chat with him just as trivially as the women in the photograph might have done.

It is a very modest poem, and it shows that Ashbery can make sense if he wants to. It possesses the sort of tender stillness that often appears in short passages in his longer poems, and it has that peculiar eye for detail which is a mark of his work. It makes even his most obscure metaphors ring with associations that are hard to place but difficult to forget. The easy informality, the simple conversational style, and the cogent, economical way in which a complicated idea is presented with little sense of trickiness are elements that come and go in his longer poems, but they have a life of their own in many of his shorter works, in which a quiet moment is captured. It is a clever poem, but it is difficult to tell that from a quick reading. The poem is based on the association of ideas, but it is the way those ideas are dropped into place—with such seeming innocence, starting with the homely idea of the smell of sausages, a common kind of food for the troops—which leads to the photograph and beyond.

“More Pleasant Adventures”

First published: 1984 (collected in A Wave, 1984)

Type of work: Poem

The poem appears to be about the history of a personal relationship, perhaps a marriage, and its eventual failure; it may be a metaphor for life in general.

“More Pleasant Adventures,” a poem from A Wave (1984), is one of those small performances by Ashbery that tempt critics into presuming that it stands for something other than itself, sometimes with preposterous consequences. On the surface it seems simple enough. The first two lines, for example, with the idea of the wedding cake looming behind them, are very smart, very succinctly sophisticated in their summing-up of the way in which the romance settles down to living day by day. The following metaphors, tracing the gradual lack of mutual interest, round out the first verse with a poetic version of how couples stop communicating.

The second verse starts with a double example of how Ashbery makes use of nonpoetic language. “Heck” has a kind of down-home simplicity that is not expected in poetry. It is followed by an equally deflated idea, a line from the popular song from the 1940’s, “Sentimental Journey.” Serious poets are “supposed” to quote from opera, but Ashbery chooses the songs of the streets. There is a rightness about this; anyone who rationalizes a failed relationship with the word “heck” is hardly likely to possess a repertoire that transcends Tin Pan Alley. It surely places the failure as less than tragic, however, and the rest of the poem is a listing of minor failures, ending in a suggestion that whatever else the years have done, they have resulted in the accumulation of some property for the unhappy pair to fight over.

Ashbery is often distinguished from poets such as Robert Lowell and John Berryman because he is thought not to tell stories of human anguish and failure. Poems such as “More Pleasant Adventures,” however, suggest the contrary. It may be possible to take this poem to a higher level of metaphorical gesture and claim that it makes a more portentous statement about human nature, but on its most obvious level it is a very wry, astringently cool, somewhat antiromantic look at the failure of love, written from the point of view of one of the participants thereto. There is, however, a common theme in Ashbery’s work that suggests that life tends to be less and less romantic as it passes by.

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