John Ashbery Poetry: American Poets Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5823

As a brief review of his biography would suggest, John Ashbery has had a considerable amount of exposure to the world of art and to the language of art criticism. Ashbery spent a full decade of his life in Paris, the art capital of Europe, where he read deeply in...

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As a brief review of his biography would suggest, John Ashbery has had a considerable amount of exposure to the world of art and to the language of art criticism. Ashbery spent a full decade of his life in Paris, the art capital of Europe, where he read deeply in French poetry and immersed himself in the day-to-day life of French culture. Readers of Ashbery’s poetry, then, should not be surprised to encounter references to art and occasional snatches of the French language as part of the poetic texts. For example, one of his poems is entitled “Le Livre est sur la table.” There are other titles in German, Latin, and Russian, and the poetry as a whole bristles with references from every department of highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow culture, including cartoons (“Daffy Duck in Hollywood”), silent movies (“The Lonedale Operator”), literature (“Sonnet,” “A Long Novel,” and “Thirty-seven Haiku”), history (“The Tennis Court Oath”), and linguistics (“The Plural of ’Jack-in-the-Box’”).

Because of its unpredictable style and subject matter, Ashbery’s poetry has managed to infuriate, befuddle, amuse, delight, and instruct its readers. His work remains some of the most difficult verse produced, for he refuses to provide the reader with a poetic “reality” that is any less complex than the “reality” of the world outside poetry. Ashbery cannot be simplified or paraphrased because his work has no “content” in the ordinary sense. His poetry is “about” the act of knowing, the process of imagining, the curious associational leaps made by the human mind as it experiences any given moment in time. To read Ashbery is to be teased into a whole range of possible meanings without finally settling on a single one. Although this openness might confuse the reader at the outset, the process of reading Ashbery becomes more pleasurable on each encounter. New meanings appear, and Ashbery’s voice comes to seem strangely present, as if he were intoning directly into the reader’s ear. These poems are filled with little verbal cues and signals aimed directly at the reader; many of the poems depend on a complicated dialogue or interplay between the author and the reader (a technique he exploits masterfully in Three Poems). Thus his work is a kind of half-poetry, always requiring an active reader to make it whole. Ashbery achieves his trademark effect of apparent intimacy while simulating the very process of thought itself.

How Ashbery came to create this new kind of poetry is actually a subchapter in the general history of art and culture in the twentieth century. Certainly he benefited mightily from his study of other artists and thinkers. During his formative years in Paris, he absorbed the French language and the famous paintings of the Louvre while immersing himself in all kinds of printed matter: cheap pamphlets and paperback novels bought from the bookstalls, as well as journalistic prose (in French and English) and the rarefied language of art criticism (which he himself was producing).

In addition, it is clear that a strong line of influence connects Ashbery with writers such as Gertrude Stein, who used disjointed syntax and unorthodox grammar as part of her Surrealistic poetry. He owes a clear debt also to Wallace Stevens, who taught him how to philosophize in poetry and also how to approach subjects obliquely. Stevens, also, was a great lover of French Impressionist painting and Symbolist poetry. From W. H. Auden, who chose Ashbery’s Some Trees for the Yale Series of Younger Poets, Ashbery learned a conversational naturalness and a lyrical or musical way of phrasing. It might be argued that Ashbery, as a literate artist, was influenced by all the great thinkers of the century, but these poetic debts seem particularly obvious, especially in the early books. He probably learned something from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s idea of language as a game, just as he must have responded to Jackson Pollock’s expressionist paintings, which use paint in much the same way that Ashbery uses words. Something of the sheer shock value and unpredictability of musicians such as Igor Stravinsky, John Cage, and Anton Webern must have touched him also, since Ashbery is clearly fond of similar effects in his own poems.

These debts to the artistic pioneers of the twentieth century are most obvious in Ashbery’s earlier books—that is, those preceding the publication of Three Poems: Some Trees, The Tennis Court Oath, and Rivers and Mountains. All these books are relatively short and compact, typically containing one long or major poem, often positioned near the end of the volume.

Ashbery’s characteristic wonder and inventiveness has proven a hallmark of the several volumes published since 1990. During that period, Ashbery wrote and published more and wrote more of the highest quality than at any other time in his career. With Ashbery, there is no limit to the possibilities inherent in human life and to the sheer fun of the mind’s response to them. Regular readers of Ashbery will begin to inhabit a world that is larger, more unpredictable, and infinitely more interesting than anything they have known before.

Some Trees

Typical of Ashbery’s early poems are “The Instruction Manual” from Some Trees and the title poem from Rivers and Mountains, each of which forces the reader to perform another kind of imaginative leaping, one that is different from the mere shock of the surreal. In “The Instruction Manual,” the speaker is bored with his job of writing an instruction manual on the uses of a new metal and, instead, falls into a prolonged aesthetic daydream on the city of Guadalajara, Mexico, which he has never visited. He invents this city in magical detail for the rest of the poem. In like manner, the places described on a map and the map itself become utterly indistinguishable in “Rivers and Mountains,” as if Ashbery were suggesting that one’s most vivid moments are those that have been rescued or resurrected by the fertile powers of the poetic imagination. Ashbery always emphasizes the primacy of the imagination. In his view, the most vivid reality occurs in the poem itself, because that is the precise point where the inner and outer (spiritual and sensory) experiences of life actually intersect.

Two more early poems bear analysis here, because they also illustrate the poetic techniques favored in many of Ashbery’s later poems. “Le Livre est sur la table” and “The Picture of Little J. A. in a Prospect of Flowers” (both from Some Trees) are magnificent feats of imaginative power, and each operates on the same principle of aesthetic meditation. In each poem, the poet looks at reality through a work of art, or as if it were a work of art (in “The Picture of Little J. A. in a Prospect of Flowers” a photograph is the medium). The effect is largely the same, because the world is always transformed and made into a work of art by the conclusion of the poem. Stevens is probably the model for this kind of poem, exemplified by his “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and “A Study of Two Pears.” Other poets, particularly William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, and Elizabeth Bishop, were to involve themselves passionately in the writing of aesthetically oriented poems, and one can look to some of their pioneering work to explain the sureness and control of Ashbery’s similar efforts.

In “Le Livre est sur la table,” Ashbery offers the reader a number of aesthetic propositions to contemplate, the most important of which is the notion that beauty results from a certain emptiness or from the placement of an object in an unusual or unaccustomed position. In both instances, the viewer is forced to see the object in a new way. Ashbery again underlines the power of the imagination, giving the example of an imaginary woman who comes alive in her stride, her hair, and her breasts as she is imagined. Most important of all is the artist who creates small artistic catalysts, new and strange relationships that haunt the perceiver with their beauty. Neither the sea nor a simple birdhouse can make for innovative art but placing them together in a fundamental relationship changes them forever:

    The young man places a bird-house    Against the blue sea. He walks away    And it remains. Now other    Men appear, but they live in boxes.

The men in the boxes are the nonartists, who do not realize that the newly created sea is a highlighted thing. All along, the sea has been “writing” a message (with its waves and lines), but only the “young man” (the artist) can read it.

The other “young man,” or artist figure, in Some Trees is Ashbery himself, described in the snapshot that serves as the aesthetic focal point for the autobiographical poem “The Picture of Little J. A. in a Prospect of Flowers.” This little fellow has a head like a mushroom and stands comically before a bed of phlox, but he has the makings of a poet precisely because he appreciates the value of words—especially lost words, those tip-of-the-tongue utterances and slips of the tongue, in which the speaker strains to specify clear meaning. “The Picture of Little J. A. in a Prospect of Flowers” is a typical Ashbery performance, not merely because of its high aesthetic theme but also because of its inclusion of low comedy, irony, and parody. The epigraph—taken from Boris Pasternak’s autobiography Okhrannaya gramota (1931; Safe Conduct, 1945 in The Collected Prose Works)—seemingly contradicts the rest of the poem in what is the first of many jokes (Dick and Jane of childhood books become Dick and Genevieve, conversing in complicated Elizabethan sentences). Childhood is full of jokes and embarrassments, like standing in front of the clicking shutter of a camera, but childhood can also be the beginning of the artist’s journey: The poem ends by praising the imagination and its ability to rescue this early phase of life through the power of words. “The Picture of Little J. A. in a Prospect of Flowers” is a bittersweet portrait of a self-conscious and precocious young man who was destined to become a great artist.

The Tennis Court Oath

In The Tennis Court Oath, the reader encounters the long quasi-epical poem entitled “Europe,” a work related in overall form to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) and to similar efforts by Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, and Williams. In the most general terms, “Europe” here means the accumulated cultural wealth of European history and its ability—or inability—to help the creative artist in the twentieth century. The decay, or “wasteland,” of Europe is juxtaposed to or “intercut” (in film terms) with a trivial story of two travelers, Pryor and Collins, whose unheroic status stands in sharp contrast to the old order. As the poem begins, the poet registers all these complex feelings, while focusing on the shocking blueness of the morning sky, here presented surrealistically:

      To employ her      construction ball      Morning fed on the      light blue wood      of the mouth

The wrecking ball of construction crews is one of the most visible symbols of the typical cityscape, suggesting simultaneously the twin processes of destruction and re-creation. The sudden, destructive impact of the steel ball approximates the elemental power of the morning light as it, too, rearranges and alters the city and all of its facets. The bystander is left openmouthed and speechless, like the sky itself. This analysis does not fully explicate Ashbery’s lines, because, like all dream imagery, they resist final explication. One can describe their suggestiveness and allusiveness, but the dream itself remains a mystery, as does this purely perceived moment of an ordinary morning in the city.

Three Poems

Some of the poet’s greatness is evident on nearly every page of Three Poems, the book that many critics cite as Ashbery’s masterpiece. The long, meditative work consists of three interlocking prose poems, “The New Spirit,” “The System,” and “The Recital,” and totals 118 densely packed pages of text. Most of that text is written in prose, a highly interactive prose that constantly urges the reader forward, raises questions, voices doubts and suspicions, and generally plunges the reader headlong into a highly meditative process of thinking and reflecting. Three Poems is Ashbery at his most difficult and most satisfying, even though there is virtually no story or tidy paraphrase that can be made of the reading experience itself. Nevertheless, a few elusive details do emerge, and one dimly begins to realize that Three Poems is an oblique narrative that in general terms charts a deep relationship between two lovers, one that somehow founders, so that the narrator grows more and more self-possessed. The narrator becomes less and less likely to address the familiar “you” who is called upon again and again in the opening pages of the book. By the end, the “you” has virtually disappeared, as if the loss of love might be charted by the absence of the “you” from pages where only the “I” can finally dominate.

The form of Three Poems deserves some attention, because the poems are cast in the form of prose, though their imagery, tonal shifts, and complicated rhythms all suggest poetic (not prosaic) form. To complicate matters even further, Ashbery originally published the second section of the work, “The System,” in the Paris Review in 1971, the year before the whole work appeared in the form of a book. Ashbery specifically allowed “The System” to be published as a prose work, so by titling the whole three-part composition Three Poems, he seems to be teasing the reader again on the simplest level and at the same time calling attention to the arbitrariness of literary labels and taxonomy. As if all those complications were not enough, Ashbery carries the joke further by inserting several poems (or at least texts that look like poems) into the longer work. What counts in the end is the sustained act of mediation and empathy with the narrator that these manipulations of typeface and marginal format will induce in the reader.

The reader, facing Three Poems, has a Herculean task to perform: absorbing a long, oblique narrative that requires constant reflection, analysis, and thoughtful mediation. The difficulty is an intentional by-product of Ashbery’s stated goal on the first page of the book: to leave out as much as possible in order to create a newer and truer form of communication. Any love story the reader could have encountered would have finally become banal; what Ashbery gives, however, cannot grow stale. To read Three Poems is to invent on every page the pain and exaltation that make up the essence of a love story. In that way, the “private” person of the book remains mysterious, as all lovers essentially must remain. Thus, one cannot summarize Ashbery’s love story, but one can experience it vicariously.

In “The System,” the second and most difficult part of the poem, the narrator becomes utterly preoccupied with himself. In “The New Spirit,” even small details of urban life were associated with something the beloved had said or done; here, however, the details and the lover have disappeared. Instead, the narrator is trapped in a kind of mental labyrinth, or “system.” In one memorable passage, he imagines the members of the human race boarding a train, which is, of course, their whole life. No one has any idea where the train is going or how fast it is moving. The passengers are ignorant of their journey and—the narrator insists—ignorant of their fundamental situation. The very core of their being is ignorance, yet they fail to recognize this crucial fact. Hence, the narrator views them with contempt.

Three Poems concludes on a lighter note, literally on notes of music, which offer a kind of deliverance for the narrator, who has been trapped in the labyrinth of his doleful thoughts. “The Recital” is important because Ashbery often sees music as an analogue to poetry. Indeed, at one point, he had planned to become a musician, and music has remained a rich source of inspiration throughout his career. The power of music and its essential abstractness make a powerful appeal to the narrator, who at this juncture is exhausted by his Hamlet-like speculations. The poem ends, and with it the whole book, with a description of the power of music (and of art)—the power to inspire new beginnings and new possibilities. In a final jest, Ashbery offers the reader an ending that is actually a beginning: “There were new people watching and waiting, conjugating in this way the distance and emptiness, transforming the scarcely noticeable bleakness into something both intimate and noble.” With this brilliant virtuoso effect, Ashbery concludes a poem that is at once a continuance of the great Western tradition of meditative writing (one that includes Saint John of the Cross and Sir Thomas Browne)—and a dramatically arresting rendition of how it feels to be alive in the last decades of the twentieth century. The old and the new come together in a synthesis that is as disturbing, fascinating, and elusive as the century that produced it.

Having reached a kind of artistic plateau with Three Poems, Ashbery’s career took a new direction. In many ways, Three Poems occupies the kind of position in his life that The Waste Land did for Eliot. Both works explore psychological traumas and deeply sustained anguish; both plumb the depths of despair until a kind of spiritual nadir is reached. After Eliot completed The Waste Land, his work took on a new, spiritual dimension, culminating in the complex Christian poem he called Four Quartets (1943). Ashbery’s work also changed after the publication of Three Poems, but he has not embraced Christian or even theistic belief; he has always insisted on a kind of agnostic or even atheistic vision of life, in which art supplants all conventional notions of divinity. Nevertheless, like Eliot, he has passed through the proverbial dark night of the soul, and his work after Three Poems is somehow more confident, less self-consciously experimental, and less opaque. The newer poetry is still impossible to paraphrase, but it is much more accessible and more readable (at least on first sight) than the most extravagant of the early poems, and its subject matter generally seems more central to human experience.

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

All these tendencies culminate in a book that won the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award: Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Those prizes and the book itself helped put Ashbery on the literary map, so that he could no longer be summarily dismissed as an eccentric aesthete turning out brilliant but inaccessible work. Readers began to look more closely at what Ashbery was saying and to embrace his message (however complex) as never before.

“Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” the title poem, is a brilliant piece of autobiographical writing that does not reveal gritty details of Ashbery’s personal life so much as his opinions about art and its power to transform the artist. Self-portraits are as old as art itself, but Ashbery as an art critic and former expatriate had encountered some especially powerful examples of the genre. He must have encountered the great self-portraits of Rembrandt van Rijn and Vincent van Gogh, but the particular work that inspired this poem is a famous masterpiece of the High Renaissance, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1524) by Parmigianino (Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola), which hangs in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Ashbery tells the reader that he encountered Parmigianino’s famous painting in the summer of 1959, during a visit to Vienna. Parmigianino’s self-portrait is uniquely circular in overall form and, as the title suggests, resulted from the artist’s close inspection of his visage in a convex mirror, an optical device that creates interesting distortions of scale and distance. Parmigianino’s hand, for example, is grossly exaggerated and dominates the foreground of the painting, while his head seems undersized and nearly childlike. It is possible that the Italian artist’s childlike appearance appealed to Ashbery because it reminded him of the snapshot of little John Ashbery that had inspired his earlier, much shorter autobiographical lyric, “The Picture of Little J. A. in a Prospect of Flowers.”

It is in the nature of self-portraits, then, to conceal and reveal simultaneously—hence the appropriateness of the convex mirror, whose powers of transformation and distortion apply equally to Parmigianino and Ashbery. The poet begins the poem by quoting and paying homage to Giorgio Vasari, the first great art critic. (Ashbery too had been an art critic at the time he saw the painting in Venice.) Vasari explains the complicated arrangements that preceded Parmigianino’s actual painting: the use of a barber’s convex mirror and the necessity of having a carpenter prepare the circular wooden substratum of the painting. These operations are mere preliminaries, however, to the much more important work of the eyes themselves once the painting has been set up. The eyes cannot penetrate the artificial depth created by this strange mirroring device; therefore, everything that results is a kind of speculation—a word that derives from the Latin word for mirror, speculum, as Ashbery points out. Thus in the self-portrait one kind of “mirroring” leads to another; what one sees is not precisely what is there. To hold the paradox in the mind is to enter the world of the artist.

The argument that Ashbery then goes on to develop may perhaps be summarized by the adagelike statement that stability (or order) can be maintained in the presence of instability (or chaos). The movements of time, weather, table tennis balls, and tree branches are all potential elements for the synthesizing and harmonizing power of art, no matter if it distorts something in the process. Perhaps the greatest distortion is that of stability; the stable simply cannot be found in nature, as Isaac Newton showed through his laws of thermodynamics. It is only in the mirror of art (a symbol also favored by William Shakespeare) that stability, order, and form may thrive. Since all art is by definition artificial, then, stability also is an artifice.

Nevertheless, artistic stability is all the artist and the race of human beings can rely on to reveal meaning in an otherwise meaningless space. So Parmigianino’s Renaissance painting, like all art, is applicable to all future generations, and Ashbery borrows Parmigianino’s technique of mirroring until the world seems to spin around him in a merry-go-round of papers, books, windows, trees, photographs, and desks, and “real life” itself becomes a kind of trick painting. Addressing the Italian master, Ashbery admits that the “uniform substance” or order in his life derives from the Italian genius: “My guide in these matters is your self.”

He goes on to quote a contemporary art critic, Sydney Freedberg, who finds the idealized beauty and formal feeling of Parmigianino’s self-portrait to depend on the very chaos Ashbery had earlier described. For Freedberg this instability is a collection of bizarre, unsettling aspects of reality that somehow the painting enfolds and harmonizes.

Readers might at this point recall similar discussions—though in radically different language—by John Keats, especially in his great meditation on art, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” which asks the reader to accept art precisely because it transforms the chaos and changeability of human life. Ultimately, this process results in a complete fusion of truth (or reality) and beauty (or art), in Keats’s formulation. Ashbery is not Keats, but one has to note the similar posture of the two poets, both contemplating the power of art, both commencing with an art object (the Grecian urn and the Italian self-portrait) and concluding on a note of affirmation. For Ashbery, the power of art is not only magnificent but terrifying, like a pistol primed for Russian roulette with only one bullet in the chamber. Art has the potential to “kill” our old perceptions. Some people might consider this power to be only a dream, but for Ashbery the power remains, and art becomes a kind of “waking dream” in the same unhappy world of human beings that Keats evokes in “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Even in the city, which Ashbery imagines as an insect with multifaceted eyes, art somehow survives. He envisions each person as a potential artist holding a symbolic piece of chalk, ready to begin a new self-portrait.

Houseboat Days

Ashbery continues with this more accessible (and essentially more affirmative) kind of poetry in Houseboat Days, the title poem of which likens the mind and its vast storehouse of memory to a boardinghouse that is open to everyone, taking in boarders of every possible type and description. This metaphorical way of describing the sensory, intellectual, and imaginative powers of human beings is a valuable clue for understanding another poem in the volume, one of Ashbery’s wittiest and most polished performances, “Daffy Duck in Hollywood,” a poem that manages to be tender, lyrical, comic, outrageous, and serious without losing its sense of direction.

An obscure opera serves as a kind of grid or structural framework for this rather freewheeling poem. The poem begins with a stupefyingly absurd collection of mental odds and ends, the flotsam and jetsam of a highly cultured and sophisticated mind that also appreciates the artifacts of popular culture: an Italian opera, Rumford’s Baking Powder, Speedy Gonzales, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, the Gadsden Purchase, Anaheim(California), pornographic photographs, and the comic-strip character Skeezix. All these apparent irrelevancies are entirely relevant, because they illustrate the random nature of the mind, its identity as a stream of consciousness. However, these items are also a kind of dodge or subterfuge to block out images of a significant other, possibly a lover. Because of the odd way the mind works through the principle of association, however, these same cartoonlike images also remind the narrator of that other person.

As in so many of his other poems, Ashbery is again insisting that the only reality is the one human beings make, and he concludes by wisely noting that no one knows all the dimensions of this mental life or where the parts fit in. The goal, in Ashbery’s opinion, is to keep “ambling” on; thus, each person might remain “intrigued” and open to all the extravagant invitations of life. The mind, with its interminable image making, is strangely cut off from life, but when used properly (that is, aesthetically) it can lay hold of the abundant and unanticipated gifts that always surround and endow impoverished human beings.

A Wave

This optimistic vein is apparent in most of A Wave but especially in the title poem, which seems to contrast crests of positive feelings with troughs of despair. The poem is a long discursive work in which Ashbery creates variations on one essential theme: that a fundamental feeling of security (not to be confused with superficial happiness), a deep and abiding sense of the goodness of life, can, in fact, sustain the person through the pain that life inevitably brings. In this poem, human beings do have final control of their destiny because they are supported by something powerfully akin to older notions of grace or faith. Having this power or “balm,” as Ashbery terms it, no one is ever really stripped of autonomy: “we cannot be really naked/ Having this explanation.”

April Galleons

This mood of sustained hope continues in the exquisitely lyrical April Galleons, a book that, like Houseboat Days, relies on the metaphor of a boat as a vehicle for psychological as well as physical travel. Included is “Ice Storm,” a poem that is highly original yet somehow manages to echo Robert Frost (especially “Birches” and “Design”). As Frost did in “Birches,” Ashbery describes winter ice in glittering detail. As Frost did in “Design,” Ashbery questions the fate of small things that are out of their accustomed places, such as the rose he stumbles on, growing beside a path entirely out of season. However, none of these matters disturbs him fundamentally, because he is beginning to get his “bearings in this gloom and see how [he] could improve on the distraught situation all around me, in the darkness and tarnished earth.”

And the Stars Were Shining

Ashbery’s wit and virtuosity are often noted by critics, yet his humanity and intelligence are equally important facets of his work. In And the Stars Were Shining, this fact becomes readily apparent when in many of the poems his wisdom of age is blended with a great and tender sadness and bursts of wit and vitality. The title poem harks back to the long poems of another age—Roman numerals mark its sections and its cadences recall a past era—but its direct and relaxed language brings it firmly into the late twentieth century. There are fifty-seven more poems in the volume, displaying Ashbery’s characteristic wryness and filled with tragicomic snapshots of our time. The works are also philosophical, as he endeavors to find amusement as well as pain in his autumnal themed poems, including the title poem and “Token Resistance.”

Your Name Here

The title of Your Name Here aptly hints at the volume’s rambunctious, arbitrary themes and pell-mell performances: Poems include “Frogs and Gospels,” “Full Tilt,” “Here We Go Looby,” “Amnesia Goes to the Ball,” and “A Star Belched.” While his poetic themes are capricious and whimsical, Ashbery’s language is intricate, tightly constructed, rhythmic, and sinuous, with a serious undercurrent of memory, time, loss, angst, and desire. Thus, his tone is at once melancholic and comedic, best demonstrated in “What Is Written.”

Where Shall I Wander

Ashbery is reported to have once said that his ambition was “to produce a poem that the critic cannot even talk about.” Most of Ashbery’s readers would probably agree that he has satisfied this ambition, although some of the poems in Where Shall I Wander are more accessible. For example, “Interesting People of Newfoundland” is quite easy to talk about, with its roll call of characters like Larry, who performed foolishly on street corners, and the Russian who said he was a grand duke—and may have been. Doc Hanks was a good “sawbones” when he was not completely drunk; even half drunk he could perform “decent cranial surgery.” Walsh’s department store had teas and little cakes and rare sherries from all over. The population was small: “But for all that/ we loved each other and had interesting times.” Altogether different in conception, “Novelty Love Trot” is hardly transparent, but it musters some explicable philosophical commentary. The poet’s taste in books runs to biographies and cultural studies; in music, he likes Liszt’s Consolations, “though I’ve never been consoled/ by them.” In the poet’s view, for most people, religion is about going to Hell: “I’m probably the only American// who thinks he’s going to heaven,” but first there is “the steep decline/ into a declivity.”

The title of the prose piece “From China to Peru” comes from the first two lines of Samuel Johnson’s The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749), an imitation of Juvenal’s tenth satire: “Let observation with extensive view,/ Survey Mankind, from China to Peru.” The vanity of the title stands out clearly in Ashbery’s version as the speaker finds himself “taunted” for his dark woolen suit when he arrives at some trivial social occasion where the men appear dressed “to go off on a safari.” His only recourse is to the bar, where the “unnerving” events around him make him eager for the cocktail hour. The coherence of this satire then dissolves into a typical Ashbery riff on Japan declaring war on Austro-Hungary and his failure to track down a weather report. “The Red Easel” has a rhymed counterpart in “The Bled Weasel,” a jeu d’esprit that exemplifies the kind of opaque collection of apparently random lines that frustrates so many readers. No weasel appears in the poem but a caterpillar shows up, “Erect on its parasol,” while “Glowworms circulated/ under the trees, confirmed [whatever ’confirmed’ means] by whimpering Dobermans.” This frivolity collapses, appropriately, in a “crazy quilt of expired pageantry.”

A Worldly Country

The title poem of A Worldly Country, written in long lines worked into couplets, tells of a city that is riotous by day, with “insane clocks” and “the scent of manure in the municipal parterre.” Chickens and geese enjoy the leftover bonbons, but even though “all hell broke loose” in the day, all was calm again by evening. The poet’s musings lead him to a moral: “And just as waves are anchored to the bottom of the sea/ we must reach the shallows before God cuts us free.” In “Autumn Tea Leaves,” it is a partial eclipse that violates the normal day, but the poet cannot discern “what is special about this helix.” These phenomena raise questions: What blanket will be sufficient for a freezing night? The dancers who celebrated the celestial occasion revealed “faces/ and senses of humor.” However, when it all ended, who knows how many cakes were served, “or leaves collected/ in the hollow of a stump”?

In the fifteen four-line stanzas of “Phantoum,” the second line of each stanza is repeated as the first line of the next, with other patterns sneaked in as the stanzas proceed. For example, in stanza 5, the second line, “The auks were squawking, the emus shrieking,” becomes line 1 of stanza 6. Little Orphan Annie’s adoptive father, Daddy Warbucks, makes a guest appearance in stanza 9 (“Daddy Warbucks was sad, but kept his reasons to himself”) with no appreciable gain to the plotless but amiable verses.

A line from Auden’s poem “At Last the Secret Is Out” provides the title “The Handshake, the Cough, the Kiss,” and it is tempting to interpret the secret as Auden’s homosexuality. Even though nothing in the poem speaks directly to a sexual theme, stanza 3 encourages speculation: “We risked it anyway,/ out on the ice where it darkens/ and seems to whisper/ from down below. Watch out, it’s the Snow Queen. . . .” The poem then evolves into the poet’s reminiscences of childhood in the unnamed “port city of his birth,” where he was something of a boy wonder, “the local amateur historian.” Rambling thoughts about childhood and the city lead to an apparent climax to the poet’s relationship with a coworker in the television industry, a man identified only as “him”: “look,/ if that’s all you can bring to the table, why are we here?” The speaker concludes his critique by lamenting “an academy/ where losers file past, and the present is unredeemed,/ and all fruits are in season.” The poems in this volume show no fading of the wit and bright phrasing of the works first published nearly half a century earlier.

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John Ashbery American Literature Analysis


Ashbery, John