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John Ashbery 1927–

(Full name John Lawrence Ashbery; also wrote under the pseudonym Jonas Berry) American poet, critic, editor, novelist, dramatist, and translator.

Ashbery is considered one of the most influential contemporary American poets. Much of his verse features long, conversational passages in which he experiments with syntactical structure and...

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John Ashbery 1927–

(Full name John Lawrence Ashbery; also wrote under the pseudonym Jonas Berry) American poet, critic, editor, novelist, dramatist, and translator.

Ashbery is considered one of the most influential contemporary American poets. Much of his verse features long, conversational passages in which he experiments with syntactical structure and perspective, producing poems that seem accessible yet resist interpretation. Although some critics fault Ashbery's works for obscurity and lack of thematic depth, many regard him as an innovator whose works incorporate randomness, invention, and improvisation to explore the complex and elusive relationships between existence, time, and perception.

Biographical Information

Born in Rochester, New York, Ashbery attended Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. Graduating from Harvard in 1949, he went on to earn a M.A. in English from Columbia University in 1951. He enjoyed early success as a poet when Some Trees, his first major publication, was recognized by the Yale Younger Poets series in 1956. After having worked in publishing in New York City for several years, he studied in Paris on a Fulbright scholarship. He remained in Paris for ten years, supporting himself as a poet, translator, and art critic for the Herald Tribune, among other publications. He returned to New York in 1966 and was Executive Editor of Art News until 1972. In 1974 he began teaching at Brooklyn College where he served as Distinguished Professor of English from 1980-1990. Ashbery has been awarded many of poetry's highest honors, including a NEA grant, a National Book Award, a National Book Critics' Circle Award, a Mac-Arthur Foundation Fellowship, and a Pulitzer Prize. Ashbery currently teaches at Bard College, a post he has held since 1991.

Major Works

Ashbery received immediate critical recognition with the publication of his first volume Some Trees in 1956; early in his career he was frequently linked by critics to the avant-garde "New York School" of poetry which included such surrealist and abstract impressionist poets as Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch. Although many critics rejected the experimental nature of Ashbery's works during the 1960s, his Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, published in 1975, is widely regarded as a masterpiece in the realm of contemporary poetry. The long title work is based on a

painting by Francesco Parmigianino, an Italian Renaissance artist who painted a portrait of himself at work in his studio reflecting his observations while peering into a convex mirror. Like the painting, the poem offers a distorted and subjective view of reality, leading many critics to assert that this is Ashbery's representation of the human condition. The poet meditates on the painting and his personal life while creating images of himself at work on the poem. The volume established Ashbery as a highly original poet whose works subvert traditional concepts of structure, content, and theme.

In his 1978 collection As We Know, Ashbery explores themes that thread through many of his verses: the instability of personal identity, the passage of time, and the intriguing relationship between art and life. His recent works, including April Galleons and his book-length poem Flow Chart, have continued to demonstrate his sense of humor and his penchant for bizarre juxtapositions of words and phrases and experimentation with poetic form. These last volumes, as well as his 1994 collection And the Stars Were Shining, explore and celebrate Ashbery's experience as a poet.

Critical Reception

Ashbery is considered a prominent and influential figure in the mainstream of American poetry and is among the most highly honored poets of his generation. Critics frequently note the influence of visual art and film in his verse, observing that the poet's experience as an art critic has instilled him with sensitivity to the interrelatedness of visual and verbal artistic mediums. The Abstract Expressionist movement in modern painting, which stresses non-representational methods of picturing reality, is a particularly important presence in his poems, which are often viewed as "verbal canvases." Although some critics have faulted the seemingly rambling and disconnected quality of such works as The Tennis Court Oath and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, supporters of Ashbery's art assert that his poetry reflects the open-ended and multifarious quality of sensory perception. Although his poetry is occasionally faulted for obscurity, many commentators argue that traditional critical approaches often lead to misinterpretations of Ashbery's works, which are concerned with the process of creating art rather than the final product.

Principal Works

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Turandot and Other Poems 1953

Some Trees 1956

The Poems 1960

The Tennis Court Oath 1962

Rivers and Mountains 1966

Selected Poems 1967

Three Madrigals 1968

Sunrise in Suburbia 1968

Fragment 1969

Evening in the Country 1970

The Double Dream of Spring 1970

The New Spirit 1970

Three Poems [With James Brainard] 1972

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror 1975

The Vermont Notebook 1975

Houseboat Days 1977

As We Know: Poems 1979

Shadow Train: Fifty Lyrics 1981

A Wave 1984

Selected Poems 1985

April Galleons 1987

Flow Chart 1991

Hotel Lautréamont 1992

And the Stars Were Shining 1994

Can You Hear Me, Bird 1995

Other Major Works

The Heroes (drama) 1952

The Compromise (drama) 1956

The Philosopher (drama) 1964

A Nest of Ninnies [with James Schuyler] (novel) 1969

Penguin Modern Poets [editor] (poetry) 1974

Three Plays* (drama) 1978

The Best American Poetry, 1988 [editor] (poetry) 1988

Reported Sightings: Art Chronicle, 1957-1987 (criticism) 1989

* Contains The Heroes, The Compromise and The Philosopher

Paul Zweig (review date 1972)

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SOURCE: A review of Three Poems, in The New York Times Book Review, April 9, 1972, pp. 4, 18, 20.

[In the following essay, Zweig commends Ashbery's use of hermetic language.]

I read each new book by John Ashbery with the same puzzlement and fascination. Ashbery's finely tuned style never lapses into the commonplace. Every poem creates a mood of density and discretion, which is almost magical. And yet one never knows quite what the poems are about. His fine elaboration of images and arguments forms a concealing net, a sort of camouflage that works not so much by covering over as by fascinating, so that one forgets to pursue one's hunger for logic amid the glories of pure language. Not since Hart Crane has an American poet made difficulty so thoroughly into a means of expression.

Here are the opening lines of "The Skaters," from Ashbery's collection Rivers and Mountains:

These decibels
Are a kind of flagellation, an entity of sound
Into which being enters, and is apart.
Their colors on a warm February day
Make for masses of inertia, and hips
Prod out of the violet-seeming into a new kind
Of demand that stumps the absolute because not new
In the sense of the next one in an infinite series
But, as it were, pre-existing or pre-seeming in
Such a way as to contrast funnily with the unexpectedness
And somehow push us all into perdition.

Long before one has made sense of lines like these—I'm still not sure I have—one has consented to them. Ashbery's muted language creates a lyric of analysis and abstraction that is incredibly precise, but impenetrable.

No poet in America resembles Ashbery, although a number of contemporary French poets, such as Michel Deguy, Marcelin Pleynet and Denis Roche, possess a similar gift for lyric abstraction. Ashbery lived for almost 10 years in Paris, and knew these poets well. Yet they are, in fact, more likely to be his disciples than the reverse, since Ashbery's hermetic style began to develop with his first book, and came fully blown almost 10 years ago in The Tennis Court Oath.

Difficulties normally are made to be solved; they are subjects for exegesis. But difficulty can also become a way to broaden the energy of language, arresting the emotions, catching the reader in sudden gaps of meaning, the way exotic images do in another sort of poetry. Instead of analyzing the obstacles of language, one can set oneself afloat on them; not fishing for meanings, but launched in a medium of elusive argument. There is a surrealism of ideas, far different from the florid imagery of André Breton, closer perhaps to the strangely argumentative poetry of Tristan Tzara.

This is the mode John Ashbery, alone among American poets, has created for himself. It has permitted him the triumph of poems like "Civilisation and its Discontents" (also in Rivers and Mountains), with passages like the following:

There is no longer any use in harping on
The incredible principle of daylong silence, the dark sunlight
As only the grass is beginning to know it,
The wreath of the North Pole,
Festoons for the late return, the shy pensioners
Agasp on the lamplit air. What is agreeable
Is to hold your hand. The gravel
Underfoot. The time is for coming close. Useless
Verbs shooting the other words far away.

Perhaps this is what Ashbery has always meant to do with his dense, almost elegiac language: to defend the "day-long silence" by "shooting the other words far away"; to reshape the connected words of everyday speech (what Mallarmé called "the words of the tribe") into a new, wholly suggestive medium.

Ashbery's most recent volume, Three Poems, restates his commitment to hermetic language in more extreme terms than ever before. The very modesty of the book's title is a provocation, for these are not poems at all, but meditations couched in a maddeningly elusive prose style. Never, I think, have the simple forms of prose been waylaid so masterfully into statements that defy interpretation. The volume is divided into three sections of varying length, entitled "The New Spirit," "The System" and "The Recital," which, we are informed, ought to be read in sequence as a trilogy. The nature of the sequence eludes me, since I can discover little in the way of development or resolution in the over-all movement of the poems. But this, and all my other attempts at explanation, must be taken quite tentatively, since Three Poems has a way of keeping its secrets.

The keeping of secrets appears, in fact, to be the subject matter of part one, "The New Spirit," which begins: "I thought that if I could put it all down that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way." Ashbery is a master at leaving it all out, but occasionally he sets into his negative prose a pattern of signs, which are like blazemarks in a wilderness. "Leaving out," we learn, becomes a way to mute the progress of words, concealing their "destinations," (i.e., their meanings) until they have escaped from the needs and aims of ordinary life:

The shape-filled foreground: what distractions for the imagination, incitements to the copyist, yet nobody has the leisure to examine it closely. But the thinness behind, the vague air: this captivates every spectator. All eyes are riveted to its slowly unfolding expansiveness.

Ashbery's work is located in "the thinness," outside of time and destinations. It becomes an orchestrated paralysis, devoted not to action but to inaction, broad and still like a pool, not swift and flowing like a river. It is the language of what Ashbery calls "the magic world":

The magic world really does exist. Its dumbness is the proof of this. Indeed any sign of activity on its part would be cause for alarm, since it does not need us, need to signal its clarion certainties into our abashed, timid, half-make-believe commerce of every day.

In "The New Spirit" Ashbery proposes a sort of spiritual exercise, "narrowing down" the reader's awareness until he is suspended amid a honeycomb of words. Having entered the timeless pattern of what he calls "weightlessness," having left everything out, we emerge "in the suddenly vast surroundings that open out among [our] features like pools of quicksilver."

Thus, part one of Three Poems defines Ashbery's poetic art: by rarifying his language, by converting its movement into stillness (i.e., into hermetic difficulty), the poet invites his reader to follow him away from the connected "map" of statements; he shows the reader how to undo the "chain of breathing," which measures time, and to emerge into a new space, strenuously cold and slow:

That space was transfigured as though by hundreds and hundreds of tiny points of light like flares seen from a distance, gradually merging into one wall of even radiance like the sum of all their possible positions, plotted by coordinates, yet open to the movements and suggestions of this new life of action without development, a fixed flame.

Part two, "The System" pursues this theme from another point of view. Once we have achieved the mystic stillness of "narrowing down," the temporal world returns, and we are carried forward on the current of everyday words, everyday needs. The mystic may rise to purity of vision, but time does not stop for him. Before he can settle into the new space, he is plunged back into the envelope of flesh, carried further and further away from the heights he once scaled. Ashbery is most open and moving in elegiac passages like the following:

On this Sunday which is also the last day of January let us pause for a moment and take note of where we are. A new year has just begun and now a new month is coming up, charged with its weight of promise and probable disappointments, standing in the wings like an actor who is conscious of nothing but the anticipated cue, totally absorbed, a pillar of waiting. And now there is no help for it but to be cast adrift in the new month. One is plucked from one month to the next; the year is like a fast-moving Ferris wheel; tomorrow all the riders will be under the sign of February and there is no appeal.

The only resource against time's "self-propagating wind," is memory, which reinvents the past over and over again, until the flow of time curves upon itself like a wheel, circling the central point, which is no longer past or future, but a radiant, remembered present. Memory saves the mystic by filling the "bare room" of his inward life with its "alphabet of clemency," until finally the patterns of memory have been learned so well that they become a second, more spiritual nature:

You no longer have to remember the principles, they seem to come to you like fragments of a buried language you once knew. You are like the prince in the fairy tale before whom the impenetrable forest opened and then the gates of the castle, without his knowing why.

If these notations seem at all clear, that is only because they misrepresent Ashbery's incredibly complex prose by attempting to analyze it. Indeed, there is far more going on in Three Poems that I have yet grasped. The language is everywhere magnificent, although its enthusiasms are curiously chaste. Sexuality, love, the real world appear in the poem like a ballet of abstractions from which the "I" and the "You" are almost absent. The concreteness of objects and images has been vaporized even more thoroughly than in Ashbery's earlier work. The result is a poem that is fascinating, but impossible to evaluate. I fear, ultimately, that Three Poems may be a secret too well kept; a marvelous, but maddening grammar of hermetic moments from which the reader, however willing to be seduced, may be excluded.

Fred Moramarco (essay date 1976)

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SOURCE: "John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara: The Painterly Poets," in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. X, No. 3, September, 1976, pp. 436-72.

[In the following excerpt, Moramarco discusses the poetry of John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara in light of the Abstract Expressionist movement in American painting]

"Insight, if it is occasional, functions critically; if it is casual, insight functions creatively."

Frank O'Hara, Jackson Pollock

The title poem in John Ashbery's new collection, Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, begins with a precise de scription of the remarkable painting by Parmigianino which inspired it. Looking at the poem and painting together,1 one is struck by Ashbery's unique ability to explore the verbal implications of painterly space, to capture the verbal nuances of Parmigianino's fixed and distorted image. The poem virtually resonates or extends the painting's meaning. It transforms visual impact to verbal precision. I am reminded of an antithetical statement by the Abstract Expressionist painter Adolph Gottlieb, whose haunting canvases juxtaposing luminous spheres and explosive brush strokes have all sorts of suggestive connections with Ashbery's poetry. Gottlieb writes about his own painting:

I frequently hear the question "What do these images mean?" This is simply the wrong question. Visual images do not have to conform to either verbal thinking or optical facts. A better question would be "Do these images convey any emotional truth?"2

It seems to me Ashbery's intention in "Self Portrait" is to record verbally the emotional truth contained in Parmigianino's painting. Visual images do not have to conform to verbal thinking, as Gottlieb points out, but they can generate a parallel verbal universe, and it is this sort of a universe that Ashbery's poetry has consistently evoked.

More than any other poets since perhaps William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein, Ashbery and his close friend Frank O'Hara have demonstrated in their poetry a continuing affinity with developments in contemporary painting. Partially this is a result of their long and close association with one another and of both poets' extensive involvement with contemporary artists. From 1960 through 1965, Ashbery was the art critic for the European edition of the New York Herald Tribune and was Paris Correspondent for Art News in the mid-60s. During these years, he also wrote for Art International and in 1963 became Editor of Art and Literature, published in Paris. Later he became Executive Editor of Art News, a post he held until 1972. O'Hara worked for the Museum of Modern Art in 1950 and became an editoral associate of Art News from 1953 until 1955, when he rejoined the Museum of Modern Art as a special assistant in their International Program. His appointment as Assistant Curator at the Museum represented, as Dore Ashton has noted, "the first authentic evidence of a rapprochement between poets and painters."3 He worked with the Museum in one capacity or another (organizing exhibitions, editing catalogs, publishing books) until his untimely death on Fire Island in 1966. By that time, he had published two books—Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell—on Abstract Expressionist painters and had written essays on many others.4 With this mutual background, it is surely not surprising that the work of the two poets reflects an affinity with the painterly esthetic developed by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, and other Abstract Expressionists.

Their work is not an isolated example of this sort of affinity, but it does represent the peak of Abstract Expressionist influence on American poetry. Basically, the revolution in American painting which occurred in New York during the late 1940s and early 50s has been well described by Harold Rosenberg:

At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce, redesign, analyze or "express" an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.5

If we change the words "canvas," "painter," and "picture" in this passage to "page," "poet," and "poem," Rosenberg's perceptive statement can describe as well the situation in American poetry at the time. Just as American painters were experiencing the exhilarating freedom of discovering the act of painting as the "event" to be captured and frozen on the canvas, American poets were discovering, in the very act of poetic composition, the subject matter of their poetry. Just as action painters were calling our attention to the basic materials of their art—paint, color, canvas—and seeing the latter as a field of action, poets began calling our attention to the basic materials of theirs—words interacting with one another to fill the white space of a page and create autonomous worlds.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this parallel development is Charles Olson's well-known discussion of "projective verse," in which he describes poetry as a virtual extension of the poet's body and the act of writing poetry as the significant "event" to be recorded in the poem:

Verse now, 1950, if it is to go ahead, if it is to be of essential use, must, I take it, catch up and put into itself certain laws and possibilities of the breath, of the breathing of the man who writes as well as of his listenings.6

Olson's essay goes on to discuss the creation of a poem as a transference of energy from the physiology of the poet to the words on the page; he speaks of "field" composition and of the rapid movement of the poet from one perception to the next. The emphasis is upon vitality, action, motion—the creative life force of the poet transformed and captured in a language which conveys the heightened vitality of the creative moment.

Coming back to Rosenberg's description of action painting for a moment—a description which likewise stresses the immediate and physical quality of the creative act—we find him pointing out that

A painting that is an act is inseparable from the biography of the artist. The painting itself is a "moment" in the adulterated mixture of his life—whether "moment" means the actual minutes taken up with spotting the canvas or the entire duration of a lucid drama conducted in sign language. The act-painting is of the same metaphysical substance as the artist's existence. The new painting has broken down every distinction between art and life.7

Rosenberg concludes his essay on action painting, which originally appeared in Art News in December 1952, with the statement, "So far, the silence of American literature on the new painting all but amounts to a scandal."

But Olson's essay had appeared in Poetry New York in 1950, and the community he led at Black Mountain College since 1948 was long exploring parallel developments between art and literature. Among the many painters who taught or studied at Black Mountain while Olson was there were Josef Albers (the rector of the college), Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, and Robert Rauschenberg.8 The Black Mountain Review, essentially a literary magazine, nonetheless published reproductions of Kline's work, collages by Jess Collins, and introduced the French Abstract Expressionist René Laubiès to an American audience.

An even more fertile meeting ground for poets and painters than Black Mountain College was New York's Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village. In "Larry Rivers: A Memoir," Frank O'Hara points out that the social relationships between poets and painters in the early Fifties led to shared esthetic concerns:

An interesting sidelight to these social activities [that is, writing poems in the Cedar Tavern while listening to painters "argue and gossip"] was that for most of us non-Academic and indeed non-literary poets in the sense of the American scene at that time, the painters were the only generous audience for our poetry, and most of us read first publicly in art galleries or at The Club. The literary establishment cared about as much for our work as the Frick cared for Pollock and de Kooning, not that we cared any more about establishments than they did, all of the disinterested parties being honorable men.9

It is in the poetry of New York poets like O'Hara and Ashbery that the painterly esthetic of Abstract Expressionism manifests itself in literary art, though Olson's criticism provides for us its literary rationale.

Ashbery's Introduction to The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara notes that

O'Hara's concept of the poem as the chronicle of the creative act that produced it was strengthened by his intimate experience of Pollock's, Kline's and de Kooning's great paintings of the late 40s and early 50s and of the imaginative realism of painters like Jane Frelicher and Larry Rivers.10

O'Hara's connection with the New York art scene dates from about 1950, when he first worked at the Museum of Modern Art and became acquainted with many of the most innovative painters in the New York area at the time. But I am concerned here less with the biographical relationships between O'Hara, Ashbery, and the New York painters than with the esthetic relationship between their poetry and the canvases of the New York School. The "casual insight" that O'Hara finds at the center of Jackson Pollock's achievement, for example, is a description as well of his own poetic style. Writing about Pollock, O'Hara finds

the ego totally absorbed in the work. By being "in" the specific painting, as he himself put it, he gave himself over to the cultural necessities which, in turn, freed him from the external encumbrances which surround art as an occasion of extreme cultural concern.11

These external encumbrances are precisely what O'Hara liberates himself from in his own poetry. His is not a poetry of extreme cultural concern, but rather is one focused on the momentary and the transient, on the hundreds of minor details which make up all of our days. His poetry is concerned with movies he has seen, friends he has visited, stores he has shopped at, birthdays he has celebrated, meals he has eaten. The "action" of O'Hara's life is in his poetry in the same way that Pollock's creative life is directly captured in his paintings.

So many of O'Hara's poems are playful, "casually insightful" celebrations of the esthetic autonomy of the creative act. The last stanza of "Autobiographie Literaria" (the serious, Coleridge-inspired title, of course, totally at odds with the spirit of the poem) specifically celebrates this esthetic ego involvement:

And here I am, the
center of all beauty!
writing these poems!

The wonder here is a mock-wonder—whimsical rather than Whitmanic—but it is aimed at calling our attention to the "action" of making the poem. Here, as elsewhere in O'Hara's work, the mock-heroic posturing is only superficially satirical. Underlying the casual chronicles of everday events in his work is a deep commitment to the transformative qualities of poetry—its ability to open our eyes, sharpen our perceptions, involve us more totally with the world around us. O'Hara's whimsy is, if may be permitted an oxymoron, a serious whimsy.

"A Pleasant Thought from Whitehead" provides an excellent illustration of O'Hara's typical stance: his insistence upon incorporating immediate experience into his work, transforming it through the intervention of casually marvelous events. The poem follows the course of its own genesis, from the desk of the poet to the eyes of the reader, a pelican and an editor interceding to provide wonder and delight:

Here I am at my desk. The
light is bright enough
to read by it is a warm
friendly day I am feeling
assertive. I slip a few
poems into the pelican's
bill and he is off! out
the window into the blue!

The editor is delighted I
hear his clamor for more
but that is nothing. Ah!
reader! you open the page
my poems stare at you you
stare back, do you not? my
poems speak on the silver
of your eyes your eyes repeat
them to your lover's this
very night. Over your naked
shoulder the improving stars
read my poems and flash
them onward to a friend.

The eyes the poems of the
world are changed! Pelican!
you will read them too!13

The tossed off quality of this poem is deceptive, as it is in most of O'Hara's work. Here he uses language in a particularly painterly way, the look and sound of the words and their placement in relation to other words reflecting the meaning and evoked response. For example, in "my poems stare at you you / stare back, do you not? my," the two "my's" which frame these lines and the three "you's" within them interact with the two "stares" to indeed confront each other. This technique is repeated in the next lines, which themselves deal with repetition: "poems speak on the silver / of your eyes your eyes repeat / them to your lover's…." The repetition of "your eyes" is another painterly touch, and the lack of comma or caesura between them stresses their interaction….

The painterly dimension of Ashbery's work is broader than that of O'Hara's and not limited strictly to Abstract Expressionism or Pop-Art, but incorporates a painterly sensibility drawn from various periods of art history. It manifests itself as early as Some Trees, in which the well-known poem "The Instruction Manual" demonstrates how a verbally imaginative world can evoke an almost tangible physical reality—how words can be used to evoke places, people, events, odors, and colors that seem to materialize before us. The narrator in the poem is bored by his job (having to turn out an instruction manual on the uses of a new metal), and as his mind wanders under the pressure of having to meet the deadline, he begins to daydream about Guadalajara: "City of the rose-colored flowers"20 he calls it. His vision of Guadalajara fills the remainder of the poem, and we become caught up in the rich, vitalized verbal canvas he has painted for us, transported from the mundane and often tedious realities of our daily lives to this exotic, marvelous world, brimming over with a vitality that is clearly absent in the world of instruction manuals. The point of the poem, I think, is that literature and art can provide these moments of revitalization for us, and although we must always return to the real world, our esthetic encounters impinge upon our sensibilities and leave us altered. At the conclusion of the poem, the narrator stresses the completeness of the imaginative experience, the absolute autonomy of the creative moment:

How limited, but how complete withal, has been our experience of Guadalajara!
We have seen young love, married love, and the love of an aged mother for her son.
We have heard the music, tasted the drinks, and looked at colored houses.
What more is there to do, except stay? And that we cannot do.
And as a last breeze freshens the top of the weathered old tower, I turn my gaze
Back to the instruction manual which has made me dream of Guadalajara.21

Also in this collection there is a sestina entitled "The Painter" whose end-words—"buildings," "portrait," "prayer," "subject," "brush," and "canvas"—interact with one another to again emphasize the autonomy of art. The painter in the poem is a conduit through whom art passes. Frustrated by his inability to capture nature on his canvas with the materials of his art, he stares at his blank canvas long and long:

Sitting between the sea and the buildings
He enjoyed painting the sea's portrait.
But just as children imagine a prayer
Is merely silence, he expected his subject
To rush up the sand, and, seizing a brush,
Plaster its own portrait on the canvas.22

He gives up his notions of representational art and decides to paint an Expressionistic portrait of his wife,

Making her vast, like ruined buildings,
As if, forgetting itself, the portrait
Had expressed itself without a brush.

The painter, encouraged by this new-found freedom, turns back to the sea for his subject, bringing to the task the fruits of his recent experience; trying to capture the sea on canvas this time, he simply "dipped his brush into the sea, murmuring a heartfelt prayer" and dabbed the ocean water directly on to the canvas. This is beyond Abstract Expressionism and almost anticipates the conceptual art of the late 60s, but the point made in the poem is that no one knows what to make of the new art object. Sea water on canvas is an esthetic outrage, and the townspeople and other artists will not put up with it, so the painter gives up painting:

Finally all indications of a subject
Began to fade, leaving the canvas
Perfectly white. He put down the brush,
At once a howl, that was also a prayer,
Arose from the overcrowded buildings.

The tercet which concludes the sestina describes what happens to people who confuse art and life, as, of course, the Abstract Expressionists purposely did, for both painter and his painting are drowned in the ultimate spiritual silence of his subject. His painting is not a portrait of the sea, but rather a self-portrait, as, I believe Ashbery and the Abstract Expressionists would agree, all major art is:

They tossed him, the portrait, from the tallest of the buildings:
And the sea devoured the canvas and the brush
As if his subject had decided to remain a prayer.

But silence is not art, though finding ways to convey the silence may indeed be.

Ashbery's second collection, The Tennis Court Oath, is still a book that arouses passions in critics and readers. Shortly after its appearance Norman Friedman railed against its purposeful obscurity,23 and more recently Harold Bloom has seen it as an anomaly in what he regards as the otherwise steady progression of Ashbery's literary sensibility.24 For me it becomes approachable, explicable, and even down-right lucid when read with some of the esthetic assumptions of Abstract Expressionism in mind. This is not to say that there is a conscious attempt here to reproduce on the page what Pollock, Rothko, Kline, and others were doing on canvas, but rather, as Ashbery himself put it in a recent interview,

It's an influence in a loose, general way. I mean, I didn't go and look at a Jackson Pollock painting and decide to try to imitate this in poetry somehow. But it's just the idea of being as close as possible to the original impulse to work, which somehow makes the poem, like the painting, a kind of history of its own coming into being.25

The first assumption to keep in mind is the necessity to view each poem in the work as a totally self-contained world, not mimetic in nature, but autonomous and self-expressive like a Pollock canvas. Secondly, the techniques of juxtaposition developed by the Abstract painters, particularly Rothko and Gottlieb, can be related to the verbal juxtaposition we find in The Tennis Court Oath, where words clash and interact with one another to invigorate our sense of the creative possibilities of language. Third, it is important to recall the unconscious dimension of Abstract Expressionism—the freedom it allows the artist for self-expression of the deepest sort. With these few presuppositions in mind, the world of The Tennis Court Oath yields its potential rather easily to any careful reader.

We open the book to the title poem and find,

What had you been thinking about
the face studiously bloodied
heaven blotted region
I go on loving you like water but
there is a terrible breath in the way of all this

You were not elected president, yet won the race
All the way through fog and drizzle
When you read it was sincere the coasts
stammered with unintentional villages the
horse strains fatigued I guess … the calls …
I worry.26

To attempt to read this in any narrative or lyrical sequence is frustrating, because the lines seem to bear no logical relationship to one another, and even within the line the words seem to make little literal or figurative sense. In addition, a poem entitled "The Tennis Court Oath" creates certain expectations in the reader. We are prepared to read something about the French Revolution, perhaps some connection between that historical period and our own, yet historical allusions are nowhere to be found in the poem. This is a characteristic technique of Ashbery's, who loves to give poems weighty and portentous titles like "Civilization and Its Discontents" and "Europe" and then proceed to construct a poem which frustrates the aroused expectations. A painterly analogy here is to the massive color and line canvases of Barnett Newman, where totally formal and abstract patterns are given titles like "Dionysius" and "Achilles." The reader or the viewer is invited to make his or her own connections, to participate in constructing the work's "meaning."

The juxtapositions here are constantly surprising. A face "studiously bloodied" calls our attention to artifice rather than violence. A "heaven blotted region" is like no region we have seen before, unless it is the region depicted in the haunting faces of the Surrealist painter Magritte, in which the features are replaced by clouds and sky. To love someone "like water" seems a particularly trivial love, but on the other hand, it is the very source and sustenance of life itself. A "terrible breath" intervening between the reader and the poem may be the reader's or the writer's own—life huffing and puffing its constant intrusion on the lucid idealities of art. Not being elected president gives the word "race" which concludes that line a political meaning, while the following line—"All the way through fog and drizzle"—forces us to see it in its more literal sense. What we confront here, it seems to me, is constantly shifting verbal perceptions—verbal "events" as a record of their own occurrence. Pollock's drips, Rothko's haunting, color-drenched, luminous, rectangular shapes, and Gottlieb's spheres and explosive strokes are here, in a sense, paralleled by an imagistic scattering and an emotional and intellectual verbal juxtaposition.

The notorious poem, "Leaving the Atocha Station," provides an additional example of Ashbery's method in action. This is a poem about which Harold Bloom has recorded his "outrage and disbelief," as indeed anyone would who approaches it in exclusively literary terms. Bloom's reductionist view of literature has led him to make statements such as

Poems may be like pictures, or like music, or like what you will, but if they are paintings or musical works, they will not be poems. The Ashbery of The Tennis Court Oath may have been moved by de Kooning and Kline, Webern and Cage, but he was not moved to the writing of poems.27

Of course The Tennis Court Oath poems are poems, but they are poems more influenced by paintings than by other poems, and to understand them or respond to them fully requires pursuing that influence, not dismissing it.

In "Leaving the Atocha Station," the title seems more closely related to the poem than is usually the case in this volume. The second line expresses directly what it is we are reading: "And pulling us out of there experiencing it." Since Paul Carroll has assured us that the Atocha station is a small railroad station in Portugal, the subject of this poem seems clearly to be the experience of pulling out of that station.28 But before we can be sure about what the subject of the poem is, we need to confront the puzzlement of the initial line: "The arctic honey blabbed over the report causing darkness." Carroll has done a careful job of exegesis here, so my comments need only be minimal and restricted to pointing out that the line forces us to consider the reverberations of each word against the next, as the carefully drawn and strategically placed squares in a Hans Hoffman painting intersect one another and force us to see the abstract pattern in the background from a different perspective. "Arctic honey," Ashbery told my class in Contemporary Poetry, "is probably something cold and sweet." "Blue Poles," in the Pollock painting of that name, are probably something dark and mysterious. The darkness caused by the blabbing, the "pulling us out of there experiencing it," all suggest the sound and motion of the immediate experience of leaving a train station.

From this point on, the images the poem conveys are generated by subconscious free association, limited by the confines of the experience being described. It is not too much to say that the poem attempts to capture the totality of that experience by including what is going on (both consciously and subconsciously) in the narrator's mind, what is going on around him in the immediate vicinity of the railroad car (lots of small, fragmented talk, snatches of it entering and receding from the narrator's consciousness), and what is occurring in the larger, external environment (the landscape that is flashing by).

Seen from this perspective, the poem emerges as an experiential canvas recording an individual's perceptions at a selected moment of his life. Phrases such as "The worn stool blazing pigeons from the roof" are a continuum of ordinary perceptions which enter and disappear from the narrator's consciousness but are recorded permanently in the landscape of the poem. They are like Rothko's yellow and oranges: glowing and fixed moments.

Rivers and Mountains (1966), Ashbery's next volume after The Tennis Court Oath, seems a much more conventional book of verse, less preoccupied with fragmented syntax, generally less self-conscious about its own techniques. In many ways it seems closer in its esthetic concerns to Some Trees than to the more innovative collection, but even here some painterly analogies can be productively drawn.

I spoke with Ashbery about the longest and most accomplished poem in that volume, "The Skaters,"29 in his New York apartment on West 22nd Street. We were discussing the idea of a work of art as a record of its own composition, an idea, as we have seen, drawn from the esthetic of Abstract Expressionist painting. I mentioned a line in "The Skaters" which points forward to later developments in Ashbery's poetry. The line—"This leaving out business"—occurs a third of the way through that long poem and anticipates the memorable opening of Three Poems, a meditation on the nature of art, which establishes a dialectic for the artist between "leaving out" and "putting in." His response emphasized a particular relationship in his work between poetry and painterly esthetics:

Also, when you mentioned what I refer to in "The Skaters" as "this leaving out business" which seems to be a preoccupation of mine—it's also in Three Poems and a lot of other work—I see now that it is really a major theme in my poetry, though I wasn't aware of it as it was emerging. It's probably something that came from painting too. A lot of de Kooning's drawings are partly erased. Larry Rivers used to do drawings in which there are more erasures than there are lines. Rauschenberg once asked de Kooning to give him a drawing so that he could erase it. I got to wondering; suppose he did erase it? Wouldn't there be enough left so that it would be some thing? If so, how much? Or if not, how much could be erased and still have the "sense" of the original left? I always tend to think that none of the developments in painting rubbed off on me very much, but then, when it comes down to it, I see that, as in this case, a lot of it did.

"The Skaters" is a poem absorbed by the question of what should go into art. How many of our fleeting moments are worthy of recording, and what about them makes them different from other moments? "Here a scarf flies, there an excited call is heard" is a line which records a visual and aural perception, but why would an artist choose these perceptions (from an almost infinite variety of others) to perpetuate in the work of art?

The answer is that it is novelty
That guides these swift blades o'er the ice
Projects into a finer expression (but at the expense
Of energy) the profile I cannot remember.
Colors slip away from and chide us. The human mind
Cannot retain anything except perhaps the dismal two-note theme
Of some sodden "dump" or lament.

But the water surface ripples, the whole light changes.

Capturing the fleeting present and charging it with sudden illumination is, after all, the mission of art; it answers the question posed by Ashbery in the next stanza, "But how much survives? How much of any one of us survives?"

The act of skating thus becomes a metaphor for the artist's graceful glide over the flat surface of existence, leaving his or her mark. Ashbery calls our attention to the lines of the poem, an analogy perhaps to the lines the skaters make in the ice, neither "meaningful" in the sense of having further explanations, but each recording its own presence and as well the absence of its creator:

The theme of art recording both the presence of the artist during the creative moment and his absence in our present experience of it is more fully developed in Three Poems but, as Richard Howard has pointed out, "'The Skaters' … becomes a meditation on its own being in the world."30 This self-reflective quality is perhaps the most important continuity Ashbery's work shares with painterly developments.

Earlier in our conversation, Ashbery specified that continuity rather clearly:

When I came back to New York for two years (1964-65), I first began writing about art and one of the first things I wrote about was a show of Rauschenberg's, and Jasper Johns also had his first exhibition. At that time it seemed as though this was the next logical way in which daring in art could express itself. Somehow the kind of epic grandeur of someone like Pollock already needed to be looked at more closely. I can see now how those junk collages by Rauschenberg influenced me at that point.

Of course, the junk collages' primary influence in Ashbery's poetry seems to be that of presenting otherwise ordinary objects and images in thoroughly extraordinary contexts. Rauschenberg's linking of a one-way street sign, a bent-up license plate, four metal-covered note pads, a starfish, stenciled numbers and paint, and a photograph of the Capitol dome, the materials spilling off the canvas and connected by a rope to a wooden box on the floor marked "open," for example, in a work cryptically titled "Black Market," illustrates this sort of influence. It is a work which seems to tell us, "Robert Rauschenberg was here and made me. You have never seen this particular configuration before and never will again." A poem in Rivers and Mountains entitled "The Ecclesiast" contains lines which tell us essentially the same thing:

The reward of enabling us to see things as we have never seen them before is, of course, the most traditional of esthetic rewards, and it permeates Ashbery's work from Some Trees through Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror. In The Double Dream of Spring, perhaps the most conventional of Ashbery's volumes, we find this esthetic renewal celebrated and underscored. Several of the poems in the volume were originally written in French and translated by Ashbery himself into English "with the idea of avoiding customary word-patterns and association."31 The freshness of the language is an end in itself for Ashbery, as it should be for almost any poet, but this freshness reveals itself here in painterly terms as well.

"Years of Indiscretion" describes the heightened sensitivity the artist offers for our participation in terms of the "dotted rhythms of colors" in a pointillistic landscape:

Whatever your eye alights on this morning is yours
Dotted rhythms of colors as they fade to the color,
A gray agate, translucent and firm, with nothing
Beyond its purifying reach. It's all there.
These are things offered to your participation.32

The title of the volume itself is taken from the title of a painting by the Italian Surrealist, Giorgio de Chirico, another artist who seems to have deeply affected Ashbery. "The Double Dream of Spring" is not one of his particularly well-known paintings, but it does demonstrate, as W. S. Di Piero has shown, "the bizarre felicity of art turning back upon itself."33 In the middle of the canvas is a framed sketch of images drawn from a composite of many of de Chirico's other paintings: a puffing locomotive, the outlines of a statuesque, grandiose figure viewed from the rear, a series of columnar arches characteristic of arcades in many European cities, a coffee cup upon a pedestal, a Parthenon-like building atop a mountain, the edge of a draped, reclining female statue. To the right of the canvas-within-a-canvas is another arcade archway with a typical de Chirico huge mannequin head, featureless, staring out at the viewer. To the left of it is another mannequin figure, viewed from the rear, walking off into the distance. In the background are several shadowy figures, two of which are repeated almost exactly in the sketch. The artist here contains his dream vision of Spring within another dream and presents the single canvas to us as the reality of his art. To complicate matters further, when Time magazine reproduced a copy of "The Double Dream of Spring" in its August 23, 1946, issue, it reported that de Chirico had denounced it as a forgery. He later authenticated the canvas and stated he was misquoted by the Time reporter.34 All of this engenders a lot of confusion about what is reality, what is illusion, what is life, what is art. As Di Piero notes,

Both images are dreams, both are real, both are art. We are not asked to choose between the two visions, but to accept both at once for what they are: realizations of a dream of a realization, the unreality of art derived from an unreal dream of a reality which is not art. De Chirico must have anticipated such double-talk on behalf of his picture and probably would have been delighted by it.35

And so, we can be sure, would Ashbery.

In "The Double Dream of Spring" Ashbery seems to be alluding to the particulars of the de Chirico painting, but we cannot quite be sure. The poem shares a bit of the painting's imagery (the "churring of locomotives," two figures turning "to examine each other in the dream"), but it evokes also a deep sense of immediately felt experience, an attempt to transform a collage of moments into some cognitive meaning, a lyricism turned narrative:

Mixed days, the mindless years, perceived
With half-parted lips
The way the breath of spring creeps up on you and floors you:
I had thought of all this years before
But now it was making no sense. And the song had finished:
This was the story.36

Is the "double dream" of the title Ashbery's dream and de Chirico's? Or is Ashbery creating a world here as complex as de Chirico's in the sense that the real world he describes is a world that we confront as words on a page: "Was it sap / Coursing in the tree / That made the buds stand out, each with a coherency?" These ambiguities leave us at the end of the poem with the only reality we can ever really experience—the reality of one day following another, the sun rising and setting on the perimeters of our experiential world:

And now amid the churring of locomotives
Moving on the land the grass lies over passive
Beetling its "end of the journey" mentality into your forehead
Like so much blond hair awash
Sick starlight on the night
That is readying its defenses again
As day comes up….

The last three lines here are illustrative of a persistent pattern of imagery in The Double Dream of Spring associated with days beginning and ending, a pattern which reflects the paramount philosophical consideration in Ashbery's work, the problem of time passing, of the artist's futile, but nonetheless determined, attempt to seize the moment.

The influence of de Chirico persists in Three Poems, a long, meditative prose poem concerned with the traces that the past events of our lives make upon our present, and in turn the traces that each present moment makes upon our future:

as we begin each in this state of threatened blankness which is wiped away so soon, but which leaves certain illegible traces, like chalk dust on the blackboard after it has been erased….37

The focus here, however, is metaphysics rather than painting, and it is de Chirico's literary work that hovers in the background rather than his paintings. Ashbery has acknowledged the impact that de Chirico's strange and neglected novel Hebdomeros has had on him,38 and it is this source, as well as de Chirico's scattered comments on art, that nourishes Three Poems. In some sense, the work seems an orchestration of a few of de Chirico's basic esthetic precepts:

To become truly immortal a work of art must escape all human limits: logic and common sense will only interfere. But once these barriers are broken, it will enter the regions of childhood vision and dream.

Everything has two aspects: the current aspect, which we see nearly always and which ordinary men see, and the ghostly and metaphysical aspect which only rare individuals may see in moments of clairvoyance and metaphysical distraction.

A work of art must narrate something that does not appear within its outline. The objects and figures represented in it must likewise poetically tell you of something that is far away from them and also of what their shapes materially hide from us.39

I hear echoes of each of these principles throughout Three Poems. From the beginning, the narrator attempts to journey beyond the human experiential moment to the "massed days ahead," a metaphysical realm which is "as impersonal as mountains whose tops are hidden in cloud."40 There is a constant attempt in the poem to break out of the confines of human subjective experience, to internalize an objective consciousness. Such an attempt is, of course, doomed from the start, because the consciousness is expressed in a language selected by John Ashbery and as such becomes his subjective consciousness. Consequently, Three Poems does narrate something that does not appear within the outline—and that something is an idealized, fully contained world, charged with promise and vitality, but paradoxically devoid of individual human subjectivity.

Because Three Poems is one of the longest prose poems in English that I know about, it is concerned with many other things as well, but one reads it with the sense of hearing a voice far off, catching snatches of lucidity intermittently, but never quite grasping the whole of a particular sequence. This evasive completeness is purposeful—wholeness, after all, is always beyond our grasp. We perceive the poem through a glass darkly, or, perhaps more appropriately, as a faint, lingering melody,41 a remembered performance, vaguely recalled, but insubstantial as a waking dream. Its final lines are self-reflective, a comment on the poem's own achievement:

The performance had ended, the audience streamed out; the applause still echoed in the empty hall. But the idea of the spectacle as something to be acted out and absorbed still hung in the air long after the last spectator had gone home to sleep.42

Returning to the collection with which I began this discussion, Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, we find the painterly sensibility evident throughout Ashbery's work linked to the meditative mode that emerged as early as Rivers and Mountains but flourished fully in Three Poems. The title poem opens with a comment on the distortive quality of art even in its lucidity. In the Parmigianino portrait it describes,

What it advertises, of course, is the artist's vision of himself, a vision limited by the confines of the mirror which contains it and misshapen by the contours of that mirror. Ashbery quotes from Vasari concerning the circumstances under which the portrait was made—Parmigianino's determination to copy exactly everything he saw looking into a convex barber's mirror on a similarly shaped piece of wood. The portrait, as we look at it, "Is the reflection once removed," and Ashbery's poem about the portrait removes us yet further from the actual physical reality of Francesco Parmigianino toward a metaphysical reality—a disembodied consciousness evoked by the presence of the portrait. Art captures life, but what is the nature of that life it captures, how much of his life can the artist give to his art and still remain alive? "… the soul establishes itself, / But how far can it swim out through the eyes / And still return safely to its nest?"

The soul of the artist was in his being as he painted the portrait. In another sense it is in the portrait itself; and in still another sense it is in our consciousness as we look at the portrait. Or put another way, it is in none of the above places, but rather exists apart from time and place in an uncharted region that is ultimately ineffable. The soul—human consciousness—will not stay contained. It is always

Longing to be free, outside, but it must stay
Posing in this place. It must move
As little as possible. This is what the portrait says.
[emphasis mine]

To convert the feelings evoked by, or contained within, the portrait, or within the poet's own self, into poetry means finding words for the ineffable, a paradoxical and doomed endeavor, but one which the poet, as Ashbery views the role, is destined to undertake continually:

That is the tune but there are no words.
The words are only speculation
(From the Latin speculum, mirror):
They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music.

Self-portraiture, then, emerges fully as a major theme in Ashbery's latest book, but it was, as think we have seen, his theme all along. It is, as Barbara Rose has noted, a "theme with a thousand faces,"44 including in the broadest sense, the non-mimetic, painterly face of abstract forms, shapes, and colors. It is a theme he shares with Frank O'Hara, who wrote about "what is happening to me, allowing for lies and exaggerations" and with the abstract canvases of William Baziotes, whose paintings tell him what he is "like at the moment." Looking at life through the mirror of words, the work of O'Hara and Ashbery leads us to shatter the esthetic boundaries between painterly and poetic art. They are our painterly poets, and we need to look at a great many paintings to read them well.


1 An excellent reproduction of the portrait appears together with the poem in Art in America, LXII (January-February 1975), 74.

2The New Decade (Whitney Museum of Modern Art, 1955), pp. 35-36.

3The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning (Viking, 1973), p. 227.

4 These are collected in Art Chronicles (Braziller, 1974).

5 Harold Rosenberg, The Tradition of the New, 2nd ed. (McGraw Hill, 1965), p. 25.

6 Charles Olson, Collected Prose (New Directions, 1966), p. 15. For an additional discussion of the relationship between Abstract Expressionism and Projective Verse, see Michael Davidson, "Languages of Post-Modernism," Chicago Review. XXVII (1975), 11-12.

7 Rosenberg, p. 39.

8 See Martin Duberman, Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community (Dutton, 1972), for a comprehensive account of the painters and poets who studied and taught at Black Mountain College.

9The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara (Knopf, 1971), p. 513.

10Collected Poems, p. ix.

11Jackson Pollock (George Braziller, Inc., 1959), p. 12.

12Collected Poems, p. 11.

13Collected Poems, pp. 23-24.

19 "Introduction," Alfred Leslie, catalogue published by Allan Frumkin Gallery (New York, 1975).

20Some Trees (Yale University Press, 1956), p. 26.

21Some Trees, pp. 29-30.

22Some Trees, p. 65.

23 "The Wesleyan Poets—III: The Experimental Poets," Chicago Review, XIX (1967), 53-56.

24 "John Ashbery: The Charity of the Hard Moments," Salmagundi, No. 22-23 (Spring-Summer 1973), pp. 103-131.

25 Lewis A. Osti, "The Craft of John Ashbery," Confrontation. No. 9 (Fall 1974), p. 89.

26The Tennis Court Oath (Wesleyan University Press, 1962), p. 11.

27Salmagundi, p. 107.

28The Poem in Its Skin (Big Table, 1968), pp. 6-26.

29Rivers and Mountains (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966), pp 34-63.

30Alone in America (Knopf, 1971), p. 36.

31The Double Dream of Spring (Dutton, 1970), p. 95.

32The Double Dream of Spring, p. 46.

33 "John Ashbery, The Romantic as Problem Solver," American Poetry Review. I (August-September 1973), p. 39.

34 James Soby, Giorgio de Chirico (Amo, 1966), p. 106.

35American Poetry Review, p. 39.

36The Double Dream of Spring, p. 41.

37Three Poems (Viking, 1972), p. 79.

38Confrontation, p. 89.

39 Robert Goldwater and Marco Treves, eds., Artists on Art (Pantheon, 1945), pp. 439-440.

40Three Poems, p. 4.

41 The influence of music on Ashbery's work is explored in David Shapiro, "Urgent Masks: An Introduction to John Ashbery's Poetry," Field, No. 5 (Fall 1971), pp. 32-45.

42Three Poems, p. 118.

43Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror (Viking, 1975), p. 68.

44Art in America, p. 66.

David Kalstone (essay date 1976)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8219

SOURCE: "Reading John Ashbery's Poems," in The Denver Quarterly, Vol. X, No. 4, Winter, 1976, pp. 6-34.

[In the following essay, Kalstone traces the thematic and stylistic development of Ashbery's verse.]

In 1972 John Ashbery was invited to read at Shiraz, in Iran, where for several years the Empress had sponsored a festival gathering music, art, and drama remarkable, even notorious, for its modernity: Peter Brook's Orghast, Robert Wilson's week-long production Ka Mountain and GUARDenia Terrace, Merce Cunningham's dances, the music of Stockhausen and John Cage. Ashbery and another visitor, David Kermani, reported that "to a country without significant modern traditions, still under the spell of its own great past, where a production of Shaw or Ibsen would count as a novelty, such an effort even might seem quixotic". Taking into consideration Iranian critics who demanded Shakespeare first or Chekhov first, Ashbery's own response was delighted and characteristic: "The important thing is to start from the beginning, that is, the present. Oscar Wilde's 'Take care of the luxuries and the necessities will take care of themselves' might well have been the motto of the festival, and its justification." That oversimplifies his view of tradition and modernism, this poet who has rich and felt connections, for example, to Traherne and Marvell as well as to recent poets like Wallace Stevens and Auden and Marianne Moore. But the present is always Ashbery's point of departure: "Before I read modern poetry, the poetry of the past was of really no help to me."

Familiar notions about a poet's development won't quite apply to Ashbery's work. He doesn't return to objects, figures, and key incidents which, as the career unfolds, gather increasing symbolic resonance. Nor do his poems refer to one another in any obvious way. Ashbery writes autobiography only inasmuch as he writes about the widening sense of what it is like to gain—or try to gain—access to his experience. The present is the poem. "I think that any one of my poems might be considered to be a snapshot of whatever is going on in my mind at the time—first of all the desire to write a poem, after that wondering if I've left the oven on or thinking about where I must be in the next hour." Or, more tellingly, in verse ("And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name", a recent poem):

Like Penelope's web, the doing and undoing of Ashbery's poems is often their subject: fresh starts, repeated collisions of plain talk with the tantalizing and frustrating promises of "poetry". The "desire to communicate" erodes, over a pointed line-break, into hasty beleaguered utterance. Nor does an accumulating personal history provide a frame for him with outlines guiding and determining the future: "Seen from inside all is / Abruptness."

And the great flower of what we have been twists
On its stem of earth, for not being
What we are to become, fated to live in
Intimidated solitude and isolation.

In his images of thwarted nature, of discontinuity between present and past, Ashbery has turned his agitation into a principle of composition. From the start he has looked for sentences, diction, a syntax, which would make these feelings fully and fluidly available. When he used strict verse forms, as he did in much of his first book, Some Trees, it was always with a sense of their power to explore rather than certify that he was a poet. There are three sestinas in Some Trees, and one, the remarkable "Faust", in his second book The Tennis Court Oath.

These forms such as the sestina were really devices at getting into remoter areas of consciousness. The really bizarre requirements of a sestina I use as a probing tool…. I once told somebody that writing a sestina was rather like riding downhill on a bicycle and having the pedals push your feet. I wanted my feet to be pushed into places they wouldn't normally have taken….

Ashbery's rhyming, too, was restless. At the close of "Some Trees" his final rhymes create a practically unparaphrasable meaning, the two words inviting overtones they wouldn't have in prose:

Placed in a puzzling light, and moving,
Our days put on such reticence
These accents seem their own defense.

There were other, drastic attempts to get at "remoter areas of consciousness", some of them in The Tennis Court Oath close to automatic writing. "Europe", a poem Ashbery now thinks of as a dead end, was "a way of trying to obliterate the poetry that at the time was coming naturally" to him. Exploding any notion of continuity, it consisted of "a lot of splintered fragments … collecting them all under a series of numbers". The "French Poems" in The Double Dream of Spring were first written in French, then translated "with the idea of avoiding customary wordpatterns and associations." In Three Poems, his fifth book, long prose pieces were a way to overflow the "arbitrary divisions of poetry into lines", another way to an "expanded means of utterance".

What I am getting at is that a great deal of Ashbery's writing is done in an atmosphere of deliberate demolition, and that his work is best served not by thinking about development, but by following his own advice: beginning at the beginning, "that is, the present". Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) is the present with which I want to begin. The long title poem of that volume is in every sense a major work, a strong and beautiful resolution of besetting and important problems. Ashbery had already broached these problems in The Double Dream of Spring, in which he characteristically approached the world as a foreigner, sometimes in the role of explorer, sometimes as a pilgrim, and almost always as someone bewildered by the clutter of a situation which, wryly phrased, "could not be better". The world of that book is often divided, out of bristling necessity, between inside and outside, between we and a dimly identified they. "They are preparing to begin again: / Problems, new pennant up the flagpole / In a predicated romance." Access to the present was more peremptorily barred than it was to be in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.

The Double Dream of Spring had looked at alternatives with grim amusement. In "Definition of Blue" the cant words of social engineers, historians, and broadcasters—capitalism, romanticism, impetuses—drain away, with their tripping rhythms, into colorless sentences, while the imaginative eye, seeking out materials for escape, finds only that "erosion" has produced:

This comic decay of language and the laws of perspective allows us "A portrait, smooth as glass, . . built up out of multiple corrections / And it has no relation to the space or time in which it was lived." The joke is on us, especially the grammatical joke that it is the portrait which lives, fragments of personality out of touch with anything but the mirroring tricks which make it seem to be a likeness. Meanwhile

The separation of "nether world" from the independent and inaccessible world of plenitude, the blue surroundings which drift past us and "realize themselves", is a source of frustration and mockery.

Yet Ashbery also takes a rueful "pop" pleasure in the vocabulary of "packaging", allowing it to deflate itself, as in the double take of a "world that could not be better". The feelings here are not totally resolved, nor are they meant to be. Ashbery once said that he was willing for his poems to be "confusing, but not confused".

It seems to me that my poetry sometimes proceeds as though an argument were suddenly derailed and something that started out clearly suddenly becomes opaque. It's a kind of mimesis of how experience comes to me: as one is listening to someone else—a lecturer, for instance—who's making perfect sense but suddenly slides into something that eludes one. What I am probably trying to do is to illustrate opacity and how it can suddenly descend over us, rather than trying to be willfully obscure.

"Definition of Blue" is, on the surface, laconically faithful to expository syntax, the sinces and buts and therefores which lash explanations together. The logical bridges lead into eroded territory, and then unexpectedly back again; the poem moves in and out of focus like a mind bombarded with received ideas. So—"mass practices have sought to submerge the personality / By ignoring it, which has caused it instead to branch out in all directions." Or, with deadpan determination—"there is no point in looking to imaginative new methods / Since all of them are in constant use." Just at the point when imagination seems reduced to novelty, an overloaded switchboard, we learn that this "erosion" with its "kind of dust or exaggerated pumice" provides "a medium / in which it is possible to recognize oneself. A serious challenge peeps through: how far are we responsible for, dependent upon, these denatured senses of identity?

"Each new diversion", Ashbery tells us, "adds its accurate touch to the ensemble." Mischievous saboteur that he is, Ashbery's pun on diversion shows how much he enjoys some of the meandering of unfocused public vocabularies and the "accurate touches" they supply (as to a wardrobe?). But, basically, our sense is of someone bristling, boxed in by a maze of idioms, frustrated and diminished by his presence there. Only the mirrored portrait lives "built up out of multiple corrections". Or, to be more exact, in a petrifying shift to a past tense and the passive voice: "it has no relation to the space or time in which it was lived"—a disaffected vision of personality if there ever was one. The world of "packaging" appears to have robbed him of a life, of his access to power and vision.

I have chosen this example, more extreme than some of the others in The Double Dream of Spring, because it is so energetically answered and refigured by Ashbery's long poem "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror". In that more recent, more encompassing work, the poet takes charge of the emerging self-portrait rather than suffering it as he had in "Definition of Blue". He tests an identity captured by art against the barrages of experience which nourish and beset it. He is sparked by a Renaissance painting, Parmigianino's self-portrait, alongside which he matches what proves to be his own: a mirror of the state of mind in which the poem was written, open to waves of discovery and distraction, and aware of the unframed and unframable nature of experience:

Today has no margins, the event arrives
Flush with its edges, is of the same substance

Parmigianino's work is itself problematic and haunting, done on the segment of a halved wooden ball so as to reproduce as closely as possible the painter's image in a convex mirror exactly the same size. That Renaissance effort, straining to capture a real presence, touches off in Ashbery a whirling series of responses, visions and revisions of what the painting asks of him.


"Self-Portrait" begins quietly, not overcommitted to its occasion, postponing full sentences, preferring phrases:

As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer

And swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises. A few leaded panes, old beams,
Fur, pleated muslin, a coral ring run together
In a movement supporting the face, which swims
Toward and away like the hand
Except that it is in repose. It is what is

A lot could be said about Ashbery's entrance into poems and his habit of tentative anchorage: "As on a festal day in early spring", "As One Put Drunk into the Packet Boat" (title: first line of Marvell's "Tom May's Death"). Such openings are reticent, similes taking on the identity of another occasion, another person—a sideways address to their subject or, in the case of "Self-Portrait", a way of dealing with temptation. The speaker in "Self-Portrait" appears to "happen" upon Parmigianino's painting as a solution to a problem pondered before the poem begins. At first glimpse the glass of art and the face in the portrait offer him just the right degree of self-disclosure and selfassertion, the right balance of living spirit and the haunting concentrated maneuvers of art. The judicious give-and-take appeals to him: thrust and swerve; toward and away; protect and advertise. (This is, by the way, one of the best descriptive impressions of a painting I know.) That balanced satisfaction never returns. What at first comforts him, the face "in repose", prompts an unsettling fear: "It is what is / Sequestered." This is the first full sentence of the poem—brief, shocked, and considered, after the glancing descriptive phrases. An earlier draft of the lines was weaker: "protected" rather than "sequestered" and the word placed unemphatically at the end of the line, as if some of the meance to be sensed in the finished portrait hadn't yet surfaced.

From then on the poem becomes, as Ashbery explains it in a crucial pun, "speculation / (from the Latin speculum, mirror)", Ashbery's glass rather than Francesco's. All questions of scientific reflection, capturing a real presence, turn instantly into the other kind of reflection: changeable, even fickle thought. The whole poem is a series of revisions prepared for in the opening lines, where in Parmigianino's receding portrait he imagines first that "the soul establishes itself, then that "the soul is a captive". Finally, from the portrait's mixture of "tenderness, amusement and regret":

The secret is too plain. The pity of it smarts,
Makes hot tears spurt: that the soul is not a soul,
Has no secret, is small, and it fits
Its hollow perfectly: its room, our moment of attention.

In an earlier draft of the poem it was not quite so clear why such strong feeling emerges:

Rewriting those lines Ashbery allowed more emphatic fears to surface. "The soul is not a soul." Acting on an earlier hint that Parmigianino's mirror chose to show an image "glazed, embalmed", Ashbery sees it in its hollow (overtones of burial) rather than in the neutral "space intended". "Our moment of attention" draws sparks between the glazed surface of the portrait and the poet's transient interest which awakens it, and places notions like the soul irredeemably in the eye of the beholder. When the poet looks at this ghostly double, alive in its mirroring appeal, the emerging fear comes across like Milly Theale's (The Wings of the Dove) in front of the Bronzino portrait resembling her, "dead, dead, dead".

Throughout "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" the poet speaks to the portrait as in easy consultation with a familiar, but with an everchanging sense of whether he is addressing the image, trapped on its wooden globe, or the free painter standing outside his creation, straining to capture a real presence, restraining the power to shatter what may become a prison: "Francesco, your hand is big enough / To wreck the sphere, …" An explosion has been building from the start as Ashbery returns over and over, puzzled by that hand which the convex mirror shows "Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer / And swerving easily away, as though to protect / What it advertises". At first that defensive posture in a work of art attracts him, an icon of mastery. But, a little later, feeling the portrait as "life englobed", he reads the hand differently:

One would like to stick one's hand
Out of the globe, but its dimension.
What carries it, will not allow it.
No doubt it is this, not the reflex
To hide something, which makes the hand loom large
As it retreats slightly.

The hand returns not in self-defense, but

Philosophic questions mount, but always apprehended through gestures, new expressions glimpsed as one stares at the painting—here a glint of self-mockery, as the painter absorbed with prowess finds himself trapped by his medium after all. "But your eyes proclaim / That everything is surface…. / There are no recesses in the room, only alcoves." The window admits light, but all sense of change is excluded, even "the weather, which in French is / Le temps, the word for time". The opening section of "Self-Portrait" winds down, the poet bemused but his poetry drained of the emotional concentration which had drawn him to the painting; a glance at the subject's hands sees them as symbolically placed, but inexpressive:

This is not Ashbery's final reading of the portrait's gesturing hand. But it launches a series of struggles with the past, with "art", with the notion of "surface", with the random demands of the present—struggles which are not only at the heart of this poem but a paradigm of Ashbery's work. Parmigianino's portrait has to compete with the furniture of the mind confronting it: the poet's day, memories, surroundings, ambitions, distractions. The solid spherical segment becomes confused, in the Wonderland of the mind, with other rounded images, toys of attention—a ping-pong ball on a jet of water, and then, at the start of the second section, "The balloon pops, the attention / Turns dully away." There is a rhythm to reading this poem, however wandering it may seem. We experience it as a series of contractions and expansions of interest in the painting, depending upon how much the poet is drawn to its powers of foreshortening and concentration, and alternately how cramped he feels breathing its air. The transitions between sections are marked as easy shifts in inner weather, opposed to the weatherless chamber of Parmigianino's portrait:

The balloon pops, the attention
Turns dully away.


As start to forget it
It presents its stereotype again


The shadow of the city injects its own


A breeze like the turning of a page
Brings back your face

The painting occurs to him at times as a ship: first, a "tiny, self-important ship / On the surface". In mysterious relation to it the enlarged hand in the distorted portrait seems "Like a dozing whale on the sea bottom". Threatening? Or a sign of throbbing vitality, an invisible part of its world? Later the portrait

Toward the end of the poem, the ship sails in to confirm some sense of

Self-important and tiny? Issued from hazards? Flying unknown colors? Through contradictory senses of the ship, Ashbery judges the portrait's relation to risk and adventure, to the mysterious otherness of "arrival" in a completed work of art.

What happens, for example, when we start to imagine the life of cities behind the surface of a work of art, in this case the sack of Rome which was going on where Francesco was at work; Vienna where Ashbery saw the painting in 1959; New York where he is writing his poem? These are ways Ashbery has of summoning up the countless events which nourished the painting and his response to it. That outside life, again imagined in terms of risk, adventure, voyages, can be profoundly disturbing—a life not palpable in a "finished" work

Such images focus the problem of how much life is lived in and outside a work of art. There is no point in disentangling what is hopelessly intertwined. The images flow toward and counter one another, and the reader accumulates a bewildering sense of what it is to be fulfilled and thwarted by his own grasped moments of vision (all attempts at order, not just artistic creation, Ashbery tries to remind us). Francesco's portrait has the capacity to make us feel at home; we "can live in it as in fact we have done". Or "we linger, receiving / Dreams and inspirations on an unassigned / Frequency". But at another moment the portrait seems like a vacuum drawing upon our plenty, "fed by our dreams". If at one point the mind straying from the conical painting is like a balloon bursting, not much later the straying thoughts are imagined as wayward, even sinister progeny of the painting: The balloon has not burst at all. "Actually / The skin of the bubblechamber's as tough as / Reptile eggs".

Struggling with the past, with art and its completeness, Ashbery is also struggling with the impulses behind his own writing at the very moment of writing.

The threat is pressed home by a shift from an impersonal "you" to an endangered "me". The finished work of art is like "A cloth over a birdcage", and the poet wary of its invitations:

Yet the "poetic", straw-colored space
Of the long corridor that leads back to the painting,
Its darkening opposite—is this
Some figment of "art", not to be imagined
As real, let alone special?

By the closing pages of the poem two irreconcilable views of "living" have proposed themselves. Parmigianino's appears to be a "Life-obstructing task". ("You can't live there.") More than that, the portrait exposes the poet's own efforts in the present:

Our time gets to be veiled, compromised
By the portrait's will to endure. It hints at
Our own, which we were hoping to keep hidden.

When "will to endure" and "life-obstructing" are identified with one another, as they are here in describing our daily fiction-making activities, the psychological contradictions are themselves almost unendurable. Imagining is as alien and miraculous as the ambivalent image he finds for it: "A ship / Flying unknown colors has entered the harbor." Our creations, torn out of our hands, seem installed "on some monstrous, near / Peak, too close to ignore, too far / For one to intervene". Another way of looking at it: "the way of telling" intrudes "as in the game where / A whispered phrase passed around the room / Ends up as something completely different".

An alternative? Though the poem is always pressing us out of the past, it has no unmediated language for the present, which is as hard to locate as other poets' Edens. Where poets describing unknown worlds have always "liken'd spiritual forms to corporal", Ashbery must perform some of the same likening to enter the corporal present itself. He knows the present only from before and after, seen as through a terrifying hourglass:

Four of these five monosyllables—"This past is now here"—point to the present with all the immediacy of which English is capable, and past disarms them all. There is no comfort in the provisional, in being open to the rush of things. In fact, one of the most devastating contemporary critiques of randomness in poetry comes in the final moments of Ashbery's poem. Yet it is a critique from within, in a poem open to the vagaries of mind—and from a writer deeply committed to describing the struggle we have describing our lives. This is his unique and special place among contemporary poets. The blurring of personal pronouns, their often indeterminate reference, the clouding of landscapes and crystal balls, are all ways not only of trying to be true to the mind's confusions but also to its resistance of stiffening formulations.

In the distorting self-portrait of Parmigianino, Ashbery found the perfect mirror and the perfect antagonist—a totem of art and the past caught in the act of trying to escape from itself. Parmigianino's work of art confirms the poet in a vocation which refuses to be rescued by art, except in the moment of creation.

This is a difficult dialectic to which he submits. Francesco is the indispensable partner in a continuing conversation; yet Ashbery's final reading of the painterly hand in the self-portrait is the boldest stroke of all:

Therefore beseech you, withdraw that hand,
Offer it no longer as shield or greeting,
The shield of a greeting, Francesco:
There is room for one bullet in the chamber:
Our looking through the wrong end
Of the telescope as you fall back at a speed
Faster than that of light to flatten ultimately
Among the features of the room,…

The pun on chamber—one last gift of the portrait's vocabulary turned against it—the dizzying transformations of rounded room into telescope and gun barrel, are triumphant tributes to all the contradictions of this poem and the hard-won struggle free of them. It would be a shallow reading which sees this poem as a modernist's dismissal of the past. Ashbery translates that topos into radical and embracing human terms. The elation we feel comes from the writer's own unwillingness to take permanent shelter in his work. Any work of art—not just those of the distant past—has designs on us, exposes for what it is our "will to endure". Ashbery builds the awareness of death and change into the very form of his work. It is the old subject of Romantic lyric—of Keat's Ode on a Grecian Urn—but here without undue veneration for the moments out of time. Ashbery admits into the interstices of his poem a great deal of experience—confusion, comedy, befuddlement, preoccupation—in which he takes as much joy as in the "cold pockets / Of remembrance, whispers out of time", which he also celebrates. His withdrawal from the privileged moments is never as regretful or as final as Keats's from his "cold pastoral". Nor is it as rueful as Ashbery's own sense of desertion in "Definition of Blue" where "you, in this nether world that could not be better / Waken each morning to the exact value of what you did and said, which remains". In that earlier poem Ashbery feels diminished and powerless before a "portrait, smooth as glass, . . built up out of multiple corrections", which "has no relation to the space or time in which it was lived". In the spaciousness of "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" Ashbery radiates a new confidence in his ability to accommodate what is in the poet's mind: the concentrated poem and its teeming surroundings. In its achieved generosity and fluidity, in its stops and starts and turns, Ashbery's long poem dispels some of the frustrations of language and form, or assimilates them more closely to the anxieties and frustrations of living.


I said before that "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" answers problems posed by Ashbery's poetic past and helps refigure it.

Every moment is surrounded by a lot of things in life that don't add up to anything that makes much sense and these are part of a situation that feel I'm trying to deal with when I'm writing.

Ashbery said this to an interviewer in 1972, as if anticipating the free and flexible voice he found for "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror". That year he had published the long prose pieces he entitled Three Poems, a work which evidently released him into an "expanded sense of utterance":

…the idea of it occurred to me as something new in which the arbitrary divisions of poetry into lines would get abolished. One wouldn't have to have these interfering and scanning the processes of one's thought as one was writing; the poetic form would be dissolved, in solution, and therefore create a much more—hate to say environmental because it's a bad word—but more of a surrounding thing like the way one's consciousness is surrounded by one's thoughts.

However odd or puzzling that last phrase may be, we can sense the pressure behind its deliberate, almost involuntary awkwardness. In both quotations Ashbery uses the word "surrounded" to suggest the number of seemingly unrelated "thoughts" or "things" at any given moment pressing behind the little that is articulated. This tension is the point of departure for Three Poems:

These are examples of leaving out. But, forget as we will, something soon comes to stand in their place. Not the truth, perhaps, but—yourself It is you who made this, therefore you are true.

We are dealing with rich polarities in Ashbery's work. The impulse to "leave all out" can be felt as early as a poem like "Illustration" from his first book. The protagonist of that poem is a nun about to leave behind the irrelevancies of the world by leaping from a skyscraper. As this droll hierophant remarks: "I desire / Monuments…. want to move / Figuratively, as waves caress / The thoughtless shore." The narrator, too, is convinced: "Much that is beautiful must be discarded / So that we may resemble a taller / Impression of ourselves." That was one way of saying it, the way of concision and foreshortening.

But then there is another way to have it, as in "And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name", a more recent poem (1975):

A difference in approach makes all the difference. "Illustration" proposes a "taller / Impression of ourselves", an epigrammatic and visionary avoidance of ordinary "beauty". "Ut Pictura" makes space for a flustered, fuller and meandering, version of self. Vision is invited by coming out into a clearing and taking a relaxed view of the surroundings. The poet finds "a few important words" and "a lot of low-keyed, / Dull-sounding ones".

Though these poems come from different periods in Ashbery's career, I don't want to suggest that one voice or approach replaces the other. But with Three Poems Ashbery rounded a critical corner. Its perpetuum mobile style prepared him, when he returned to verse, for a new fluidity, a way to readmit the self to his poetry. Alive in its present, and determined as any Jack-in-the-Box, that self pops up when any moment of poetic concision threatens to falsify or obliterate it. The discovery comes as a relief, not so much a calculation as a necessity. Leaving things out, "forget as we will, something soon comes to stand in their place. Not the truth, perhaps, but—yourself."

I am talking, then, about complementary gifts or voices in Ashbery's poetry. He has his own deadpan way of putting it: "In the past few years have been attempting to keep meaningfulness up to the pace of randomness … but I really think that meaningfulness can't get along without randomness and that they somehow have to be brought together." No wonder that the long "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" stands as a centerpiece to his work in the early 1970s; no single short poem could handle such a copious problem. It would be a mistake to see this merely as an aesthetic question, a poet talking about poetry, about the relative virtues of condensed vision and expansive randomness. The emotional coloring that Ashbery gives this conflict, especially in his long poem, suggests psychological dimensions and stresses. Art "leaving things out" involves a sense of melancholy and sacrifice, a restlessness, a threat to vitality.

The Double Dream of Spring is shadowed by such feelings; the short poems of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror often counter them. Together, these two books five years apart, with their different moods, give a sense of the range and playfulness and boldness of Ashbery's emerging work. There are some poems, of course, which might be in either book. Still, certain characteristic titles belong to one and not the other: in Double Dream, "Spring Day", "Summer", "Evening in the Country", "Rural Objects", "Clouds"; in Self-Portrait, "Worsening Situation", "Absolute Clearance", "Mixed Feelings", "No Way of Knowing", "All and Some". The latter pick up colloquial ways of describing the emotional weather of the moment. Titles from Double Dream tend toward the generic and the pastoral. (Not that any Ashbery title is more than a clue or point of departure, less a summary and more a key signature for the poem.)

In The Double Dream of Spring Ashbery seems absorbed in the forms that lie just behind an experience; the day's events are "Fables that time invents / To explain its passing". Common phrases are challenged; buried meanings are coaxed out of them so that they surprise us with a life of their own, or chastize us for a sleepy acceptance of the "phraseology we become". Ashbery wants to push past the hardening of life into habit, the way it congeals into patterned phrase, the metaphysician's equivalent of "You are what you eat". I don't know whether "Young Man with Letter" is touched off by yet another appearance of a golden, well-introduced youth into the city which will absorb him. But the impulse of the poem quickly becomes something else: to awaken the "fable" sleeping behind a phrase like "making the rounds".

Another feeble, wonderful creature is making the rounds again,
In this phraseology we become, as clouds like leaves
Fashion the internal structure of a season
From water into ice. Such an abstract can be
Dazed waking of the words with no memory of what happened before,
Waiting for the second click. We know them well enough now,
Forever, from living into them, tender, frivolous and puzzled
And we know that with them we will come out right.

The cliché ("making the rounds") is teased alive by the strange sad comparison with the seasons. Ashbery performs what he then identifies, "dazed waking of the words", eventually "living into them". Many of the poems in Double Dream perform such discoveries, satisfied with nothing merely accidental, nothing less refined than "Fables that time invents / To explain its passing". Still, having gone beyond gossip in "Young Man with Letter", having absorbed a single bit of tattle into a large melancholy sense of natural cycles, Ashbery is left with some nagging questions. Once he has sidestepped the "corrosive friends" and "quiet bickering" in this poem, there is still something distant and unreal about the "straining and puffing … commas produce":

The frustration and self-mockery, the sense of being deprived of the present, are inescapably twinned with the discoveries made in such poems. The mood is odd and disquieting; however gratifying the visionary insight, the poet also seems to feel experience being taken out of his hands. Hence, the way fresh hopes verge into nightmares in the long suspended sentence at the opening of "Spring Day":

The immense hope, and forbearance
Trailing out of night, to sidewalks of the day
Like air breathed into a paper city, exhaled
As night returns bringing doubts

That swarm around the sleeper's head
But are fended off with clubs and knives, so that morning
Installs again in cold hope
The air that was yesterday, is what you are

In this supple maze of syntax, things seem over, exhausted, before they begin; "immense hope" turns into "cold hope" in "the air that was yesterday".

Again, a sense of pleasure in natural cycles is slowly withdrawn in "Years of Indiscretion".

Whatever your eye alights on this morning is yours:
Dotted rhythms of colors as they fade to the color,
A gray agate, translucent and firm, with nothing
Beyond its purifying reach. It's all there.
These are things offered to your participation.

These pebbles in a row are the seasons.
This is a house in which you may wish to live.
There are more than any of us to choose from
But each must live its own time.

The experience offered here, beginning in random pleasures of the eye, seems at first to belong to us, to our wishes and choices. And yet "participation" suggests limits to our control, and the ambiguous "its" in the last line shadows independent processes in which we "participate" but do not endure. The grave diction soon removes us into an atmosphere refined and impersonal, our lives roles rather than improvisations. "There ought to be room for more things, for a spreading out, like," Ashbery says of the generalizing screen which stands between us and details of the landscape ("For John Clare"). "Alas, we perceive them if at all as those things that were meant to be put aside—costumes of the supporting actors or voice trilling at the end of a narrow enclosed street."

In one of his best short poems, "Summer", Ashbery imagines the winter latent in summer branches: "For the time being the shadow is ample / And hardly seen, divided among the twigs of a tree." Winter's poverty emerges later in a full-blown reminiscence of Stevens: "and winter, the twitter / Of cold stars at the pane, that describes with broad gestures / This state of being that is not so big after all". I am struck by the frequency with which Ashbery returns in Double Dream to myths of the seasons, as to photographic negatives, for the true contours governing experience—and what's more important, he is looking not for myths of rebirth but for myths of diminution. In "Fragment" we learn that

Summer was a band of nondescript children
Bordering the picture of winter, which was indistinct
And gray like the sky of a winter afternoon.

In the poem "Summer", "Summer involves going down as a steep flight of steps / To a narrow ledge over the water."

Ashbery takes his title The Double Dream of Spring from de Chirico and so puts us on warning that we are stepping through the looking glass into those deep perspectives and receding landscapes of the mind. He leads us, once we are prepared to follow, to yearned-for, difficult states, free of casual distraction.

To reduce all this to a small variant,
To step free at last, miniscule on the gigantic plateau
This was our ambition: to be small and clear and free.

Does the present exist principally "To release the importance / Of what will always remain invisible?" he asks, with some urgency, in "Fragment". The Double Dream of Spring seems to answer that question in the affirmative. It is Ashbery's most successfully visionary book, however sad its tone. Unlike Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which struggles to include and authenticate the present, Double Dream finds the most striking images in its glimpses of the fables behind our lives, and it most yearns for the state which is both free and death-like, diminished.

The welcoming stuns the heart, iron bells
Crash through the transparent metal of the sky
Each day slowing the method of thought a little
Until oozing sap of touchable mortality, time lost and won.

"Soonest Mended"—so goes the title of one of the best of these poems, illustrating a point we can scarcely grasp until we supply the first half of a proverb which has been mimetically suppressed: "least said; soonest mended". Double Dream calls for tight-lipped irony as well as yearning for visionary release. In "Soonest Mended" comic self-awareness and proverbial wisdom are the ways Ashbery finds to deal with the deposits of history and hazard which determine the course of life:

They were the players, and we who had struggled at the game
Were merely spectators, though subject to its vicissitudes
And moving with it out of the tearful stadium, borne on shoulders, at last.

It is entirely in keeping with the tone of this poem that we are left uncertain as to whether we are borne out of the stadium triumphant or dead. Or both. Just as, at the end of "Soonest Mended", action is described as

The brave carelessness here is licensed by some certainty that no matter how many mistakes we make, no matter what happens, we do return to the "mooring of starting out". We can also read this as helplessness. The tone is partly elegiac, owning up to the futility of our efforts, with "mooring" sounding as much like death as a new life. The entire poem has this doubleness of feeling. Its long breathy lines shift quickly from one historical hazard to another; it doesn't take long to get from the endangered Angelica of Ariosto and Ingres to Happy Hooligan in his rusted green automobile. Caught up in a whirligig of historical process, the self has no chance to recover balance, and above all, no conceptual means, no language to do so. Still, the energetic lines breathe the desire to assert ego and vitality. The poem sees the world as so full of bright particulars that no rules of thumb can keep up with them; and so it is fairly bitter about standard patterns of history and learning, sees them only as shaky hypotheses. "Soonest Mended" doesn't yet pretend pleasure in the present, a pleasure Ashbery does experience in later poems; and yet the poem doesn't entirely fall back on dreams of another world. Falling back, not with too much conviction, on the proverbial wisdom of the title, Ashbery has found a middle diction: ready to improvise, yielding to but not swamped by randomness.


I have talked about complementary voices and attitudes in Ashbery's work—alternatives between which "Soonest Mended" seems poised—the ways of concision and copiousness. Before Three Poems Ashbery was strongly attracted to foreshortening, "leaving all out", moving figuratively: discarding things so that we "resemble a taller / Impression of ourselves". It is easy to forget how fierce and compelling that desire was:

Something has happened between that fevered vision and the more relaxed, but still yearning, close of "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror": the Parmigianino portrait recedes, virtually assassinated by the poet; it becomes

Both this passage and the one from "Clepsydra" acknowledge a constellation of dreams perhaps more "real" than "real life" ("the certainty that it / Wasn't a dream"). But the version in "Self-Portrait" is wistful, rather than driven: Ashbery seems open to the varieties of experience, registers more pleasurably the ache of the veiled and ineluctable dream. He makes his bow to an ironic view of the visionary self ("the 'it was all a dream' / Syndrome") before returning to a hidden truth behind colloquial language ("the 'all' tells tersely / Enough how it wasn't"). The present disguises the tempting dream behind Parmigianino's portrait, but disguises it in the "radiance" of the Poet's room. No need to choose between the present and the unseen—and in the pressured light of the passing of time, no way to do so.

It is the jumble of everyday pleasures and frustrations that we hear most often in the fluid style of some of the shorter poems of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Even the longer poem "Grand Galop" is almost literally an attempt to keep the poem's accounting powers even with the pace of inner and outer events. Naturally it doesn't succeed. The mind moves in several directions at once, and the poem is partly about the exhaustions and comic waste carried along by the "stream of consciousness":

The custard is setting: meanwhile
I not only have my own history to worry about
But am forced to fret over insufficient details related to large
Unfinished concepts that can never bring themselves to the point
Of being, with or without my help, if any were forthcoming.

At the start of the poem, the mind moves on ahead of some lists of names (weigela, sloppy joe on bun—the end of the line for Whitman's famous catalogues) and then the poem says we must stop and "wait again". "Nothing takes up its fair share of time". Ashbery calls our attention repeatedly, and with frustration rather than exultation, to the fact that the poem's time is not outside time.

"Grand Galop" also laments the generalizing and pattern-making powers which intervene and block our experience of particulars:

Imperfect and featureless fall with deadpan accuracy in lines which expose the hazards of "aping naturalness". Ashbery's "Man of Words" finds that

All diaries are alike, clear and cold, with
The outlook for continued cold. They are placed
Horizontal, parallel to the earth,
Like the unencumbering dead. Just time to reread this
And the past slips through your fingers, wishing you were there.

Poetry can never be quite quick enough, however grand the "galop", however strong the desire to "communicate something between breaths". This explains some of the qualities of Ashbery's style which trouble readers. What seems strange is not so much what he says as the space between his sentences, the quickness of his transitions. "He" will become "you" or "I" without warning as experiences move close and then farther away, photographs and tapes of themselves. Tenses will shift while the poem refers to itself as part of the past. We feel as if something were missing; we become anxious as if a step had been skipped. So does the poet who, in several of the shorter poems, describes himself as a dazed prologue to someone else's play, or longs for a beautiful apocalypse:

There are moments when Ashbery takes perilous shelter in the world of fable and dream, as in "Hop o' My Thumb", whose speaker, a kind of Bluebeard, imagines possessing his sirens ("The necklace of wishes alive and breathing around your throat") in an atmosphere at once hothouse and "Lost Horizon":

There are still other made-up countries
Where we can hide forever,
Wasted with eternal desire and sadness,
Sucking the sherbets, crooning the tunes, naming the names.

Yet these worlds, while drawing out some gorgeous imaginings, generate as much restlessness as the confusing world of daytime plenty. We may share the moment in "Märchenbilder" when "One of those lovelorn sonatas / For wind instruments was riding past on a solemn white horse". With it goes impatience, the desire to escape, a very rich and suggestive ambivalence. The fairy tales

The third of the exotic poems in this volume, "Scheherazade", suggests what Ashbery is after in such works. He doesn't retell the story of the Sultan and the ideal storyteller, but he does explore with evident interest and desire the condition of that inventive lady. She is part of a world of dry lands, beneath which are rich hidden springs. "An inexhaustible wardrobe has been placed at the disposal / Of each new occurrence." She loves the "colored verbs and adjectives",

But most of all she loved the particles
That transform objects of the same category
Into particular ones, each distinct
Within and apart from its own class.
In all this springing up was no hint
Of a tide, only a pleasant wavering of the air
In which all things seemed present,…

That love of detail and rich ability to cope with it, an experience of the world without anxiety, without being overwhelmed by plenitude, is rarely felt in Self-Portrait, and therefore to be envied in the world of "Scheherazade". Is it available in the randomness of daily life in America? Ashbery has an affectionate eye and an especially affectionate ear for the comic and recalcitrant details of American life: "sloppy joe on bun" stands not too far from the weigela which "does its dusty thing / In fire-hammered air". In "Mixed Feelings" several young girls photographed lounging around a fighter bomber "circa 1942 vintage" summon up a sense of the resistant particulars which tease the imagination. The fading news-shot flirts with the poet's curiosity. He names the girls of that period affectionately—the Ruths and Lindas and Pats and Sheilas. He wants to know their hobbies. "Aw nerts, / One of them might say, this guy's too much for me." Each side has its innings: the girls are imagined as wanting to dump the poet and go off to the garment center for a cup of coffee; the poet, laughing at their "tiny intelligences" for thinking they're in New York, recognizes that their scene is set in California. What's delightful about this poem is the relaxed exchange of imagining mind with imagined objects, a kind of seesaw in which each is given independent play. Though the girls are dismissed, he is fully prepared to encounter them again in some modern airport as "astonishingly young and fresh as when this picture was made".

One of the most engaging things about Ashbery's book is his own susceptibility to American sprawl, while understanding its impossible cost. There is a serious undertone—or is it the main current?—in a poem called "The One Thing That Can Save America".

The quirky things that happen to me, and I tell you,
And you instantly know what I mean?
What remote orchard reached by winding roads
Hides them? Where are these roots?

Along with a healthy love of quirkiness, Ashbery expresses a bafflement that any individual radiance is ever communicated from one person to another. The "One Thing" that can "Save America" is a very remote and ironic chance that

The poem reaches a political point which it would be oversimplifying, but suggestive, to call "populist".

The enemy, over and over again, is generality. The generalizing habit, he tells us in "All and Some", draws us together "at the place of a bare pedestal. / Too many armies, too many dreams, and that's / It." I don't mean that Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror gets down to cracker-barrel preaching. There is too much self-mockery for that.

Do you remember how we used to gather
The woodruff, the woodruff? But all things
Cannot be emblazoned, but surely many
Can, and those few devoted
By a caprice beyond the majesty

Of time's maw live happy useful lives
Unaware that the universe is a vast incubator.

What I am getting at is that Ashbery's new variety of tone gives him access to many impulses unresolved and frustrated in The Double Dream of Spring.

Whitman's invitation for American poets to loaf and invite their souls can't have had many responses more mysterious, peculiar, searching, and beautiful than Ashbery's recent poems. Where he will go from here there is, to use one of his titles, "no way of knowing". What is important is that Ashbery, who was on speaking terms with both the formalism of the American 1950s and the unbuttoned verse of the 1960s is now bold and beyond them. His three most recent books have explored apparently contradictory impulses—a melancholy withdrawal, and a bewildered, beguiling openness—which stand in provocative tension with one another. Older readers have tended to find the poems "difficult"; younger readers either do not experience that difficulty or see past it, recognizing gestures and a voice that speak directly to them. Perhaps it is reassuring to them: a voice which is honest about its confusions; a voice which lays claim to ravishing visions but doesn't scorn distraction, is in fact prey to it. Ashbery does what all real poets do, and like all innovators, his accents seem both too close and too far from the everyday, not quite what we imagine art to be. He mystifies and demystifies at once.

Grace Schulman (essay date 1977)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2388

SOURCE: "To Create the Self," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. XXIII, No. 3, October, 1977, pp. 299-313.

[In the following excerpt, Schulman explores the defining characteristics of Ashbery's visionary poetry]

"From this I shall evolve a man,"1 Wallace Stevens wrote of the mind's efforts to integrate the self by controlling a swarm of external phenomena. And in our time there are poets whose work is built on the awareness of disorder, confusion, and change, and for whom those very conditions generate the discovery of an interior life through powers above the level of reason. That self-discovery is attained by revelation that is not ultimate, as is the mystic's or the saint's; it is, however, genuine, in that the poet has broken through the limitations of conventional vision to see and to proclaim the truth of what has been seen.

The poetry of Arthur Gregor, John Ashbery, and Jean Garrigue is, each in its own way, based on genuine vision and on revelation through clouds of distress and exile. Each has developed a method of meditation through which the soul may strive toward unity of being. Central to the work of each poet is a vision of the integrated self, as well as the unification of all people and the union of people and things. Each poet dramatizes the belief in the power of art to reveal a continuous present and to cut through the limiting divisions of days, hours, and years.

Those notions are related to Plato's idea that the oneness of absolute truth, beauty, and good may be accessible to faculties above the rational. They recall Coleridge's famous concept of the Imagination:

The poet, described in ideal perfection, brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other, according to their relative worth and dignity. He diffuses a tone and spirit of unity, that blends, and (as it were) fuses, each into each, by that synthetic and magical power to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of imagination. This power, first put in action by the will and understanding … reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of the general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image; the individual, with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness, with old and familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion, with more than usual order…2

Coleridge's statement suggests that the very method of reconciliation is its aesthetic importance. So too, it is not the discovery of truth (which is, actually, the province of the mystic) but the concentration which the act of discovery demands from the poet of genuine vision.

In The Poetry of Meditation, Professor Louis L. Martz has discussed the work of seventeenth-century poets in the light of his investigation of Jesuitical methods of meditation. He writes:

A meditative poem is a work that creates an interior drama of the mind; this dramatic action is usually (though not always) created by some form of self-address, in which the mind grasps firmly a problem or situation deliberately evoked by the memory, brings it forward toward the full light of consciousness, and concludes with a moment of illumination, where the speaker's self has for a time, found an answer to its conflicts.3

[Ashbery] has created methods to transform the transcendent experience into art, as well as to reveal the self in its wholeness….

However different their methods, John Ashbery and Arthur Gregor have affinities in creating a poetry of genuine vision and in dramatizing aesthetic revelation. At the center of their work is the belief that art is a medium for knowing a hidden objective reality and revealing its beauty. That principle recalls Marianne Moore's lines: "Above particularities, / These unparticularities praise cannot violate."8 And like Marianne Moore, who wrote of objects in ways that expressed forces beyond them, both poets use presentative images to capture the intangible nature of things. Observations, rendered with clarity, are transformed in the process of self-discovery, and lead to perceptions of permanence.

John Ashbery's visionary poetry did not begin until later in his career, after he had devised, and discarded, various methods that would enable him to capture and render the invisible world. Since these tendencies illuminate his final achievement, however, they are essential to a study of his great vision.

From the beginning of his career, John Ashbery has been concerned with the fragmentation of modern life, and with the artist's impulse to seize that elusive moment of reality by cutting through the crowded texture of experience. In his first book, Some Trees (1956), he juxtaposes images of present life with those of the unseen, combining them as a way of inquiring into the nature of reality. In "The Instruction Manual," the speaker, writing about "the uses of a new metal,"9 dreams of Guadalajara, a city he "wanted most to see, and most did not see." Escape from the manual affords a glimpse into what is real—and yet this elusive beauty sends him back to the manual and to the ordinary world. Still, the imagined scene lingers, shaping the speaker's experience, its images sharpened by their remoteness from conventional vision:

How limited, but how complete withal, has been our experience of Guadalajara!
We have seen young love, married love, and the love of an aged mother for her son.
We have heard the music, tasted the drinks, and looked at colored houses.

In that first book, Ashbery's concern with visual perception recalls Whitman's passive observer in Leaves of Grass, and is reminiscent also of Emerson's belief, set forth in "The Poet," his essay, that the poet is a seer, standing at the center, courageously accepting the challenge to submit to his vision. Although the image of obtaining knowledge by sight occurs often in the book, it rings insistently in "Answering a Question in the Mountains":

We see for the first time.
We shall see for the first time.
We have seen for the first time.
The snow creeps by; many light years pass.
(Some Trees)

Embodying the young poet's visionary experience is a remarkably original use of set forms. Sestinas, sonnets, canzones, pantoums, eclogues, and other set forms are made new when given natural speech cadences and a unique music; and, in contrast, expanded lines are transformed by the devices of parallelism and internal rhyme. Here Ashbery devises forms that will frame his vision, forms that are traditional and yet sufficiently unbinding to permit the dramatization of moments when an ideal order is perceived at a time of heightened awareness, when one scene is grasped by the integrated sense. The title poem begins:

These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were still a performance.
Arranging by chance

To meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try

To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.
(Some Trees)

The Tennis Court Oath (1962), incorporating a radically different approach, veers toward the world of the senses. Ashbery juxtaposes disparate images and presents fragmented scenes to approximate chaotic modern life and human division. He depicts a surface reality that assaults the mind, broken only occasionally by moments of radiant light:

Nothing can be harmed! Night and day are beginning again!
So put away the book
the flowers you were keeping to give someone:
Only the white, tremendous foam of the street has any importance,
The new white flowers thare beginning to shoot up about now.10

Ashbery's characteristic eans of dramatizing the inward search properly begins with the poems collected in Rivers and Mountains (1966). For one thing, he uses the pronoun shift to present the soul splitting apart from the seto achieve a new unity. In "A Blessing in Disguise," he utters:

And I sing amid despair and isolation
Of the chance to know you, to sing of me
Which are y You see,
You hold me up to the light …


I prefer "you" in the plural, I want "you,"
You must come toe, golden and pale.
Like the dew and the air.
And then I start getting this feeling of exaltation11

In this and subsequent works, the sudden shift to "you" or "he" has spiritual meaning. Even when, in some instances, "you" refers to a loved one, the pronoun implies a reflection of the eternal being; and when "he" is a human figure, the word also incorporates the renewed spirit.

Another of Ashbery's methods of enacting the interior journey resembles Arthur Gregor's method of creating a familiar scene, moving back into memory and then, in the course of meditation, discovering the relationship between the present view and the unity of seemingly disparate events. So in "The Skaters" the speaker, considering present confusion, remembering the past, achieves transcendence: "Here I am then, continuing but ever beginning / My perennial voyage …" (Rivers and Mountains).

Abandoning this method, Ashbery reached another stage in the development of his visionary poetry. Confounded by surface impressions he sought to achieve wholeness of self by isolating a fragment of sensory experience. Thus in "Fragment," placed in The Double Dream of Spring (1970), he writes of the urgent present, "A time of spotted lakes and the whippoorwill,"12 as key to the invisible, the disguised reality.

Three Poems, consisting of prose poems called "The New Spirit" "The System," and "The Recital," is an account of the revelation enabling him to reattach apparently contradictory things to the e and to find a unifying order in the fragments of experience. "I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way …"13 he begins, describing as well the struggle of his poetry: including all sensory data, leaving them out, putting them in transformed by the poetic act.

Here Ashbery presents the disguises of reality, made of phenomena that baffle the senses:

Yet so blind are we to the true nature of reality at any given moment that this chaos—bathed, it is true, in the iridescent hues of the rainbow and clothedn an endless confusion of fair and variegated forms which did their best to stifle any burgeoning notions of the formlessness of the whole … this chaos began to seem like the normal way of being…

(Three Poems)

"The New Spirit" evolves from surrendering the self and learning to live in others, seeing all surface reality again but through the eyes of others. Doing so, you find

you have returned not to the supernatural glow of heaven but to the ordinary daylight you know so well before it passed from your view, and which continues to enrich you as it steeps you and your ageless chattels of mind, imagination, timid first love and quiet acceptance of experience in its revitalizing tide. And the miracle is not that you have returned—you always knew you would—but that things have remained the same.

(Three Poems)

Although its style is far from expository, Three Poems is a systematic declaration of Ashbery's aesthetic, and it prepares the way for his major work, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975). The amazing title poem is an enactment of that method of self-revelation in which the artist perceives all surface reality, but through the eyes of another being. Because corporeal truth mirrors the world of the invisible, the artist will see what is permanent by taking in all that is transitory. And he will come to terms with the self precisely by studying another being.

The marvelously outlandish image Ashbery uses for the lens of the other being is a distorted self-portrait painted by the master, Francesco Parmigianino. By studying the artist's likeness in the curved mirror, relinquishing the demands of the finite ego, the speaker envisions a painter who has accepted life's limitations and triumphed over them:

… there is in that gaze a combination
Of tenderness, amusement and regret so powerful
In its restraint that one cannot look for long.
The secret is too plain. The pity of it smarts,
Makes hot tears spurt: that the soul is not a soul,
Has no secret, is small, and it fits
Its hollow perfectly: its room, our moment of attention.14

By discovering his kinship with the painter's interior self—for the portrait is, in its very obliquity, of the man's inner world—the speaker sees his own life transformed:

… I see in this only the chaos
Of your round mirror which organizes everything
Around the polestar of your eyes which are empty,
Know nothing, dream but reveal nothing.
I feel the carousel starting slowly
And going faster and faster: desk, papers, books,
Photographs of friends, the window and the trees
Merging in one neutral band that surrounds
Me on all sides, everywhere I look.
(Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror)

Retreating from the portrait to examine the events of his daily life, the speaker sees all objects in the haze of Francesco's vision, and then alternates between the ideal world of art and the blight, the inertia of modern society ("Can you stand it, / Francesco? Are you strong enough for it?").

Returning to the present, the poet sees with renewed vision. He has sought "a movement / Out of the dream into its codification." And although there are no fundamental changes in the world around him, he sees its fragment made whole by the creative act. That process, we learn, is the immortality of Francesco and the survival of humankind….


1 Wallace Stevens, The Man with the Blue Guitar, Including Ideas of Order (New York: Knopf, 1952), p. 42.

2 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. J. Shawcross (2 vols., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907), II, 12-13.

3 Louis L. Martz, The Poetry of Meditation: A Study in English Religious Literature of the Seventeenth Century (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1954), p. 330.

8 Marianne Moore, Complete Poems (New York: Viking/Macmillan, 1968), p. 142.

9 John Ashbery, Some Trees (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1956), p. 26—hereafter cited in text.

10The Tennis Court Oath: A Book of Poems (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1962). p. 35.

11Rivers and Mountains (1966; New York: Ecco Press, 1977), p. 26—hereafter cited in text.

12The Double Dream of Spring (1970; New York: Ecco Press, 1976) p. 87.

13Three Poems (New York: Viking, 1972), p. 3—hereafter cited in text.

14Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (New York: Viking, 1975), p. 69—hereafter cited in text.

Dana Yeaton (review date 1981)

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SOURCE: A review of As We Know, in The American Poetry Review, Vol. X, No. 1, January-February, 1981, pp. 34-6.

[In the following positive review, Yeaton praises linguistic aspects of "Litany."]

Imagine, a sixty-five page poem written in two columns to be read simultaneously. That means you can't read it—alone, anyway. You'll need two readers, male and female for the difference in pitch, but even then, as my friends and I found after taping "Litany," you can't really say you've heard the poem. Concentrating on one of the readers means ignoring the other; listening for the interplay between voices means missing the sense of each. At times they seem to overhear each other, to respond by echoing or by shifting to an aspect of the other's topic. Or one voice stops and the other, filling the silence left, assumes the power of both. Inevitably, they compete for attention, and this is nothing new for followers of Ashbery, though in "Litany" he has discovered a form which is perhaps his clearest expression to date of the fact that:

Sometimes a pleasant, dimpling
Stream will seem to flow so slowly all of a
Sudden that one wonders if it was this
Rather than the other that one was supposed to read.

When the two monologues click, when for example we hear "materialize" and "dematerialize" pronounced at the same time, or "finality" followed by "fatality," or when one voice stops and the other seems to continue the thought, we can only wonder if it was intended or not. Obviously the poems weren't written simultaneously—was it choreography or chance? Of course there are elements of both; what's important is that "Litany" keeps us guessing and that the poet has given up, at least in part, his role as controlling presence. With "Litany," Ashbery continues to redefine poetry by changing the status of the poet from one who creates meaning to one who creates the occasion for it.

Of course there's controversy here. Ashbery's "poetry of distraction"—"compositions made of what the day provides"—asks to be read as it is written, that is, by suspending judgment of what the poem is about, what it means and where it's going. "We must learn to read in the dark," he tells us, indicating that the rewards will not go to the reader who can squeeze coherence out of any text, but to the one who somehow "found the strength / To be carried irresistibly away." Ashbery's poems have been called "fitful," "abstruse," "obsessively autobiographic," and he has been criticized for what is called his "hyper-conscious awareness." (Except for the obsessive bit, he is probably loved for these same characteristics.) But even the critics who have judged his previous work inaccessible or unsociable will agree that in As We Know Ashbery has found a way to be simple. Still fitful, still idiosyncratic and likely to "start out with some notion and switch to both," Ashbery has allowed himself startling fits of clarity. We get long discursive passages—on the state of poetry, the need for humanistic criticism, or the need to be taken care of, all written in the baldest prose—that demonstrate Ashbery's enduring commitment to the idea that anything is material for poetry, "as any magic / Is the right thing at the right time." And if this book is to be called obsessively autobiographic, it should be mentioned that the obsession is with writing our biographies as well, because as the title indicates, As We Know is about common knowl edge—common, but perhaps never before articulated. It's "the same thing we are all seeing, / Our world," he says in "A Tone Poem," but who can say, he asks in "Litany," "Exactly what is taking place all about us?"

Not critics, certainly, though that is precisely
What they are supposed to be doing, yet how
Often have you read any criticism
Of our society and all the people and things in it
That really makes sense, to us as human beings?
I don't mean that a lot that is clever and intelligent
Doesn't get written, both by critics
And poets and men-of-letters in general
But exactly whom are you aware of
Who can describe the exact feel
And slant of a field in such a way as to
Make you wish you were in it, or better yet
To make you realize that you are in it
For better or for worse, with no
Conceivable way of getting out?

Why, John Ashbery of course.

Picture-making is the trap "Litany" wants to avoid by describing, not the mean event, but the feel of "the rushes slanted all one way." The leaves and branches "tried to slant with them" because their motion was imagined as effort and that image is now fused with the perception.

Strangely enough, Ashbery's animism has been used as evidence against him. In a review of his last book, Houseboat Days, one critic complained that the poet's "'nature' appeared as a stage version of reality," and called the tendency "narcissistic." (No doubt he'll be interested in Ashbery's argument that landscapes are more human than portraits.) To me, Ashbery's animism is recognition of the fact that "the seeing is taken in with what is seen." "Tapestry," the poem this line appears in, begins by pointing to the difficulty of separating the tapestry from the "room or loom which takes precedence over it"—from our ideas of its origin. His clinical, textbook diction makes it clear that he is not discussing poetic ways of seeing but basic human perception:

The eyesight, seen as inner,
Registers over the impact of itself
Receiving phenomena, and in doing so
Draws an outline, or a blueprint,
Of what was just there….

Ashbery's concern in "Tapestry" is not with displaying his own poetic prowess or powers of association but with discussing a shared problem: "We can hear it, even think it, but," he says in "A Tone Poem," try as we might, we "can't get disentangled from our brains." And this is Ashbery's gamble in As We Know; he claims to know how and what we think. "You know what I mean," the title seems to say, and the success or failure of the book teeters on his ability to tell us what we know, to say, in his best T. S. Eliot voice, "There comes a time when the moment / Is full of, knows only itself," and have the reader answer, "Yes, come to think of it, there does."

"But this is about people. / Right," Ashbery says in "Litany," reminding himself and us of his promise to speak "to us as human beings." Of course there are only individual testimonies to say that the promise is kept. Even when the outlook is bleak, I find the book consoling because no matter how terrible "the thin, terrifying edges between things" may be, it is soothing to hear them named accurately and compassionately. There is a person on the other end of these poems who is sad, cynical, and a little angry. He is also happy, well-adjusted and has a way of describing our situation that:

One advantage of "Litany's" format is that it allows for a conversational manner of speaking which might be judged facile, or too much like prose, if each monologue were not complicated by the other. But "Litany" doesn't worry about being mundane; in fact, it flaunts it. One monologue begins with "The simple things / Like having toast or / Going to church" and the other ends by asking a simple favor: "I've written several times but / Can't straighten it out—would you / Try?" Here is a long poem which mocks the idea of any invocation and refuses to come to its dramatic conclusion. And shouldn't there be more literary allusions? and what about these wordy, uncondensed sentences that crop up? Here's a poem that doesn't play by the rules.

Maybe it's unfair to read so much revolution into "Litany" though. It doesn't protest established notions of poetry as much as it gets along without them.

All I want
Is for someone to take care of me,
I have no other thought in mind,
Have never entertained any….

But why you
May ask do I want someone to take care of me
So much? This is why:
I can do it better than anyone, and have
All my life, and now I am tired
And a little bored with taking care of myself
And would like to see how somebody else might
Do it, even if that person falls on their face
Trying to, in the attempt.

Surely this is bad poetry by contemporary standards. It repeats itself. It tells when it should show. Where are the sensual images? Certainly not that person falling on his face; that's the resident cliche, which is followed by a perfect instance of tautology: "Trying to, in the attempt." Surely this is bad poetry and maybe that's what makes it so appealing. Rather than reduce the feeling to a phrase or name or metaphor, Ashbery expands it, luxuriates in it and the common words that express it. Throughout "Litany" and the shorter poems which follow, he can be seen mining ordinary language, and not only for the wisdom or humor stored in its sayings, but for the beauty of simple expression:

She said this once and turned away
Knowing we wanted to hear it twice….

An idea I had and talked about
Became the things I do.

These lines have what I want to call a totally linguistic appeal. In its context, "She" does not refer to anyone, so that "turned away" does not create a visual image. The image here is in the idea, the shared experience of having heard something we would like to hear again. In the same way, "An idea I had and talked about" is language specific. There are no pretty words referring us to the sensible world, only the familiar, colorless ones which are normally edited in the poetry-making process. We usually demand some roughage in our verse and do without an article there, a preposition here. But rather than shorten the phrase, Ashbery prefers to economize by leaving out the explanation, the controlling context, which would otherwise provide a comfortable transition from one thought to the next. These are the "privileged omissions" which keep us continually off balance, afraid to look anywhere but at our feet. By calling this a poetry of distraction, we miss the sense in which it is a poetry of extreme concentration. In and between the lines it is our "chronic inattention" Ashbery is attacking.

At times the omissions are easily filled. In the first of "Litany's" three sections, one stanza begins, "There was another photograph / In that album," when there's been no mention of photographs or an album. But what more background do we need? The line provides its own; someone was talking about some photos and we've come in in the middle. Yet there's a nagging insufficiency in an explanation like this because it tends to limit possibilities which Ashbery has carefully left open. Having learned to accommodate these, we're still faced with the transitions which occur in a rapid series, intended, apparently, to disorient us. Generally speaking, it's no fun to be lost ("I Might Have Seen It" is one exception), and willfully obscure is another name for cheap verse. When Ashbery loses us, however, it's usually with the purpose of finding us again. An elusive and difficult opening to "Knocking Around" is followed by the reassurance, "Nothing is very simple." And in "My Erotic Double," just when the poem is leaving its original scene, and us, behind, Ashbery speaks to the confusion and in doing so releases us from it: "We are afloat…." Now enjoy it.

One destroys so much merely by pausing
To get one's bearings, and afterwards
The scent is lost.

The thought is not a new one, to Ashbery or to modern poetry, but in "Litany" it takes on special meaning. In the armchair, we can stop and flip back a few pages or sneak a preview, but a public performance will go on without us. Keeping up with "Litany" means accepting our uncertainty. Take the scenery in section I: Spain and the Sahara, Greece and the bayou, tumbleweed and tropics, airports, terraces … the object is to keep us moving, and this whirlwind tour is only part of the disorientation. There is the chatter of two voices—a kind of sensory overload—and on top of it, the usual difficulties and distractions associated with a public reading.

Book in hand, it's easier to see how "Litany" manages to console us in the face of so much confusion. John Holden, writing for The American Poetry Review (July/August 1979), has already mentioned Ashbery's predilection for the syntax of a well-reasoned prose paragraph, how Ashbery uses the sound of logic to connect disparate images. The stanza may begin with a concise topic sentence, as, for instance, "What was green before is homeless." This is supported by the fact that "The mica on the front of the prefecture spells out 'Coastline'…." Nonetheless they "come round to my idea, my hat, as it would be if I were you in dreams and in business only…." Holden's point is that by presenting an argument thoroughly convinced of itself, Ashbery is able to give idiosyncratic associations the credibility of logical extensions. Similarly, by using a word twice for its different functions, he will pivot undetected from one thought to the next. Or, as in "A Box and Its Contents," the phrase "You see" is not repeated but receives a second meaning retroactively:

You see, only some of the others were crying
And how your broad smile paints in the wilderness
A scene of happiness, with balloons and cars.

As abrupt as the transitions in an Ashbery poem may be—as staggering to us cognitively—they are not abrupt to the ear, and this is the triumph of Ashbery's lyricism. In a voice neither manic nor neurotic, he manages to shift from topic to topic, changing postures, overwhelming us with divergent feelings and reactions—signs which in a Berryman or Plath prefigured an early end.

I was waiting for a taxi.
It seemed there were fewer
Of us now, and suddenly a
Whole lot fewer. I was afraid
I might be the only one.

A paranoid thought, to be sure, but so wryly expressed we can hardly worry for Ashbery's sanity. "I might be the only one," the left column says in the pause between stanzas on the right. "And I too am concerned that it / Be this way for you," the right begins, "That you / Get something out of it too." Again, simple words expressing a simple desire show a reluctance to "poeticize"—communication so direct, who can doubt its sincerity? It's as though Ashbery cares more for us than for poetry.

Fortunately, he never has to choose; Ashbery has found a means of expression totally adequate to—because inseparable from—its message. Language is not the enemy. The customary struggle with words will not take place, because in fact words can express how he feels, what he means, though we may have to change our ideas of expression to see how "It is they who carry news of it / To other places. Therefore / Are they not the event itself?"

"Litany" is not the telling of a story but the story itself, of how someone once sat down and began writing, and certain things occurred to him and were the grammar presiding over what might be said. Easy acceptance of itself makes "Litany" a machine—a poetry machine—which produces itself. These would probably be fightin' words if Ashbery did not use the analogy himself:

It isn't. "Litany" goes on for another twenty-five pages and feels as if it could go for twenty-five more, spontaneously generating, an infinitely renewable resource, with each monologue drawing on the other, just as "Self-Portrait" draws on Parmagianino's Self-Portrait, and "Fantasia on 'The Nut Brown Maid'" draws on its 16th century pretext, "The Nutbrowne Maide." Ashbery will discuss his, our, fatigue, but he won't complain about it. In fact it's a good sign.

Among the things that "Litany" calls itself—"an outburst," a "lullaby that is an exclamation," "a blatantly cacophonous if stirring symphony,"—it is also a writer's workshop, and this is one of its most pleasant surprises. For the present, our work is this poem, but throughout it there are references to our novel, our work outside the poem.

Ashbery acknowledges what most poets prefer to ignore—that the audience for poetry today is made mostly of poets and would-be poets. We may not be accustomed to such direct tips, but we are probably looking for them, and they are part of what makes As We Know such a friendly book. Kind even.

David Fite (essay date 1981)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7774

SOURCE: "On the Virtues of Modesty: John Ashbery's Tactics against Transcendence," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. XLII, No. 1, March, 1981, pp. 65-84.

[In the following essay, Fite analyzes the opaque nature of Ashbery's verse, viewing it as an important aspect in the development of the poet's "aesthetic strategy."]

John Ashbery provides our belated time an ars poetica most notable for its determined modesty. Poetry may be "grace," as our mild-mannered poet comes to assert in his recent long poem, "Litany," but it is a grace that neither seeks nor delivers that chimerical Romantic transcendence which remains the preoccupation of many of our best poets and critics alike today. Writing cannot "transcend life, " Ashbery tells us in "Litany," precisely because "it is both / Too remote and too near. " Writing is at the same time removed from life, from "what continues," and yet part of it, part of the ongoingness of things. "The Wrong Kind of Insurance" makes the writer's dilemma explicit:

We too are somehow impossible, formed of so many different things,
Too many to make sense to anybody.
We straggle on as quotients, hard-to-combine
Ingredients, and what continues
Does so with our participation and consent.

It is important to note that this is a dilemma that destroys itself in the very process of formulation: "what continues / Does so with our participation and consent." Writing, any kind of communication, of trying "to make sense," indeed any kind of telling-ourselves-tales, is part of that participation, part of the consent of living; as "Litany" again would have it, "The tales / Live now, and we live as part of them, / Caring for them and for ourselves, warm at last. " If mankind is, among other things, a conversation—"We are all talkers / It is true"—then John Ashbery will serve as rhetor, his work both a commentary on and emblem of what lies "underneath the talk … / The moving and not wanting to be moved, the loose / Meaning, untidy and simple like a threshing floor."

Thus, in "Soonest Mended," one of Ashbery's finest poems, is the situation facing the poet defined. The epistemological problems that have plagued our poets for the last two hundred years—the Cartesian split between mind and world, the ineluctability of our otherness to each other—are not so much obliterated by Ashbery as accepted, consented to, as part of the "tales" constitutive of ourselves, our lives. This is a peculiar modesty, but a modesty nonetheless, for the acknowledgment from the start is that "Overall is beyond me"—words that a contemporary poet as gifted as A. R. Ammons takes years and crisis-poem after interminable crisis-poem to deliver.2

Ashbery's modesty is notably productive. Free not to have to address himself, with anguished Romantic intensity, to the inaccessibility of ultimate beauty and truth, Ashbery has given us instead, over the last quarter of a century, a resonant and capacious poetry that features, in the words of "Soonest Mended," "a kind of fence-sitting / Raised to the level of an esthetic ideal."

Ashbery's work has been met with so much consternation, misunderstanding, and even anger because an aesthetic strategy based on "fence-sitting" necessarily forsakes most of the tactics of Romantic and post-Romantic poetry in English. Ashbery's work does not feature symbols or Romantic, organic wholeness of form. "I wish to keep my differences," the poet announces at the beginning of "Litany," and it is a proclamation that could have appeared on the title page of Some Trees in 1956. Ashbery has always wished to write a poetry that, to use his own phrasing from a laudatory review of the work of Pierre Reverdy, gives us not "une signification allégorique" or "philosophique," but rather a world of "phénomènes vivants," a world that we seem to see "pour la première fois."3 "But what I mean is there's no excuse / For always deducing the general from particulars," the poet chides in "All and Some," and this "resistance of stiffening formulations," as David Kalstone has called it,4 is at the tactical center of Ashbery's work. His poems characteristically take the conventions of two different types of discourse, the argument and the story, and systematically fragment, splinter, distort them. What results in the first instance has been aptly described by Ashbery himself:

It seems to me that my poetry sometimes proceeds as though an argument were suddenly derailed and something that started out clearly suddenly becomes opaque. It's a kind of mimesis of how experience comes to me: as one is listening to someone else—a lecturer, for instance—who's making perfect sense but suddenly slides into something that eludes one. What I am probably trying to do is to illustrate opacity and how it can suddenly descend over us, rather than trying to be willfully obscure.5

The argument is "suddenly derailed"; time and again as we read Ashbery's work, we are confronted with the interesting predicament of not being at all troubled by the logic of the lines—but for the fact that we do not know what the argument itself is. Ashbery sees his arguments, as well as his stories, as a kind of "music." "What I like about music," he says, "is its ability of being convincing, of carrying an argument through successfully to the finish, though the terms of this argument remain unknown quantities. What remains is the structure, the architecture of the argument, scene or story. I would like to do this in poetry."6

Cultivated "opacity" is the result, then, of Ashbery's distortions of the conventions of both argument and narrative. These distortions are meant to deliver what we might call, appropriating Ashbery's words in praise of Gertrude Stein's Stanzas in Meditation, "a general, all-purpose model which each reader can adapt to fit his own set of particulars."7 Such a "general, all-purpose model" obviously makes great demands on its readers, leaves them bereft of most of the crutches of modern critical convention. Ashbery, elucidating the etiology of one of his ubiquitous "its," tells us in "Litany" that "It emerges as a firm / Enigma, burnished, filled in. " The problem is that it is we, the readers of Ashbery, who have to do most of the filling in, and outside of a few generally not very helpful clues to be found in the French and German Surrealism of early in the century, in the American Abstract Expressionist art of the 1950s, in isolated nooks and crannies of writers as different as Wallace Stevens, W. H. Auden, and Ronald Firbank, we have little to go on.

How should, or rather, how can we read Ashbery, then? Perhaps we can trust the teller in the midst of his enigmatic tales. In recent years Ashbery has come to show an increasingly good-humored awareness of the nature of his enterprise as a writer. Here is an observation on stylistics from "And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name": "Now one must / Find a few important words, and a lot of low-keyed, / Dull-sounding ones." The reader new to Ashbery's work indeed is likely to be alarmed, or rather, bored, by the frequency of low words creeping along in dull lines therein.

We talked, and after that went out.
It was nice. There was lots of time left
And we could always come back to it, and use it later
But the flowers dropped in the conservatory
For this was the last day of the year
Conclusion of many ups and downs….

Thus, the eloquence of "Fragment." We have here a determined ordinariness, indeed a tiredness of language. Everywhere in Ashbery's poetry we have, as commentators have frequently noted, a deliberate refusal of the language of "ecstatic peaks of feeling."8 Add the number of exclamation marks in "Ode to the West Wind" and "The Aeolian Harp"; the sum cannot be much less than that found in all of Ashbery's works. An exclamation mark in Romantic poetry is often an emblem, to use Pater's words, of "restlessly scheming to apprehend the absolute."9 There is no such restlessness in Ashbery precisely because there is, by design, no such absolute. Instead, Ashbery gives us the flux of our tales together, a knowing-through-telling that discards, even as a possibility, any peaks of synecdochal Romantic knowing, wherein an ecstatic gnomic naming of the One is sought. Ashbery, in consenting to our tales together, accepts their inevitable mediacy, and thereby removes from his poetry the anguished and intense feelingfulness which is the province of the solitary Romantic quester. "Yet nothing was its essence," he tells us in a cryptic line from "The Wine" in As We Know, and this is to say that since "essence," or Ammons's "Overall," is describable only in terms of the language of things, it is thus, in effect, abolished as "essence," for we know only what our tales tell us. Ashbery's interest, then, will focus not on chimeras, but on the world of man as a conversation; as a good rhetor, he will be interested in effects, in the manners and modes of our tales together.

The tactics engendered by Ashbery's repudiation of strenuous Romantic knowing and feeling feature a constant recourse to the conventions of our tales, the tales of our culture, in an effort, known to be lost from the start, exactly to pin down the flux of consciousness. The effort is a losing one because any manner of essentialized knowing is recognized now to be chimerical. We see this in Ashbery's characteristically modest and amusing attempt to explain his process of writing in "Ode to Bill":

In fact, it is impossible to say of anything "precisely what I mean," for precision of this sort is predicated upon essence, immutability. Ashbery's calculated modesty in forsaking any bold epistemological predication allows him a considerable resourcefulness in his subsequent tactics toward what he calls, in "French Poems," "This banality which in the last analysis is our / Most precious possession." Ordinariness of language is but one weapon in a formidably inclusive arsenal. We need to examine the others.

Ashbery's "all-purpose" models begin with indefiniteness of reference. Crucial to his opacity are his vague pronouns, especially his "it." Ashbery surpasses Stevens in his use of this pronoun, whose very vagueness is an emblem of the poet's epistemological hesitance. Many of Ashbery's poems are, in some way or another, exercises in "it." The title poem of As We Know, Ashbery's latest volume, gives us one of the most sustained and resonant of these exercises:

All that we see is penetrated by it—
The distant treetops with their steeple (so
Innocent), the stair, the windows' fixed flashing—
Pierced full of holes by the evil that is not evil,
The romance that is not mysterious, the life that is not life,
A present that is elsewhere.

And further in the small capitulations
Of the dance, you rub elbows with it,
Finger it. That day you did it
Was the day you had to stop, because the doing
Involved the whole fabric, there was no other way to appear.
You slid down on your knees
For those precious jewels of spring water
Planted on the moss, before they got soaked up
And you teetered on the edge of this
Calm street with its sidewalks, its traffic,

As though they are coming to get you.
But there was no one in the noon glare,
Only birds like secrets to find out about
And a home to get to, one of these days.

The light that was shadowed then
Was seen to be our lives,
Everything about us that love might wish to examine,
Then put away for a certain length of time, until
The whole is to be reviewed, and we turned
Toward each other, to each other.
The way we had come was all we could see
And it crept up on us, embarrassed
That there is so much to tell now, really now.

"As We Know," like "The Wine," is the story of "it," a story that concludes, as so many of Ashbery's recent tales and arguments do, with a moral observation, with a kind of proverbial wisdom that is all the more convincing—"As We Know," the title reassures us—because we do not really know quite what it means. The "it" of Ashbery's "As We Know" is immanent in the apparently unrelated details of "All that we see"—in the treetops, the stairs, the windows with their "fixed flashing." "It" also penetrates and pierces "full of holes," and "it" can be fingered, rubbed, and done, lending a heavily phallic cast to the "small capitulations / Of the dance." But what is "it"? The answer, of course, is that we do not know—and are not meant to know. "It" in "As We Know," like most of Ashbery's "its," exists without a referent and thus stands at the crucial place in his poetry where randomness and meaningfulness meet. The details in which we see "it" manifest are all, in fact, metaphoric machinations for saying what is unsayable—unsayable not because transcendent, but because immanent and ongoing through multifoliate particulars. "It" is an unessentialized naming of the flux, of that "doing" which involves "the whole fabric," and the name must be indefinite, must be itself a turning away from essence, because the implicit recognition is that any attempt to say "it," to give expression to the ongoingness of things, is inadequate. As Ashbery's rigorous sense of limits would have "it," the tale of his poem is just another telling that we live in, a telling, furthermore, that is itself a stiffening formulation that cannot be allowed to be true as such, but only partakes of truth in so far as tales are what, after all, we "live in."

It is this sense of limits in Ashbery that gives us not only "it," but also the absences of his poetry, the spacious emptiness of much of his imagery, the indefiniteness of individual being implied by the rest of his vague personal pronouns. Ashbery's entire work is, in fact, "pierced full of holes." His poetry is full of absences, of holes, of empty afternoons and empty horizons, of "interstices, between a vacant stare and the ceiling" where "we live" ("Saying It to Keep It from Happening"). In "The Ice-Cream Wars," "the truth becomes a hole, something one has always known, / … A randomness, a darkness of one's own." The dreamlike, often haunting, often melancholy tone that we encounter in so many of Ashbery's poems is built upon the fundamental absences of flux realizing itself as truth.

Ashbery's strategy of loss delivers serenity, however, as often as it does melancholy, for of the truth of "it" we may say not only what "The Ice-Cream Wars" reductively says, as / know (the motto of so many assertive and darkly Romantic geniuses), but also, "as we know"—the comforting assurance of the more modest rhetor, Ashbery. This recouping of losses through a turn to "we" is, of course, the key strategic maneuver in Ashbery's poetry. The consequent obliteration of the distinct Romantic "I" has been well expressed by Ashbery himself in a statement that is becoming one of the most famous in modern poetics:

The personal pronouns in my work very often seem to be like variables in an equation. "You" can be myself or it can be another person, someone whom I'm addressing, and so can "he" and "she" for that matter and "we"; sometimes one has to deduce from the rest of the sentence what is being meant and my point is also that it doesn't really matter very much, that we are somehow all aspects of a consciousness giving rise to the poem and the fact of addressing someone, myself or someone else, is what's the important thing at that particular moment rather than the particular person involved. I guess I don't have a very strong sense of my own identity and I find it very easy to move from one person in the sense of a pronoun to another and this again helps to produce a kind of polyphony in my poetry which I again feel is a means toward greater naturalism.10

"As We Know" displays such an indefiniteness in its personal pronouns—an unspecified "we" dissolves into an unspecified "you," which gets caught up with a "they" with no referent, and so on—because, for Ashbery, "it doesn't really matter very much" to pin a pronoun down to a specified and referential antecedent. Ashbery's position here, which is based on his startlingly diffident assumption that "we are somehow all aspects of a consciousness giving rise to the poem," is manifested in many important ways in his poetry, not only in his "polyphony" of pronouns, but also in his willingness to adopt the posturings, the poses, and the phrases of others.

One of the most important tactics in Ashbery's poetry is the use of clichés and pat phrases, the verbal formulas of our culture. The short poems of As We Know, for instance, yield, among many others, expressions such as "tried and true," "put it behind me," "turns tail and disappears."11 More important for Ashbery than these figures of our conversations, though, are the cultural clichés that have become figures of our collective thought. Ashbery has always had an acute ear for the conventions of stories, films, advertisements, art and literary criticism. We see his talent for mimicry highlighted in the Firbankian posturings of "Illustration" in Some Trees; in the fractured banality of the tale of "Idaho," in The Tennis Court Oath; in the outrageous triteness of the lampooning of that bestselling poetess of the 1920s, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, in "Variations, Calypso and Fugue" in The Double Dream of Spring. Sometimes a poem will become a veritable frolicking in junk, in recycled phrases, as in "A Sparkler."

But just once come back see it the way
I now see it
Sit fooling with your hair
Looking at me out of the corner of your eye
I'm so sorry
For what we haven't done in the time we've known each other.

Then it's back to school
Again yes the sales are on.

We have everything here from Harlequin Romance to "Gidget Agonistes" to "School Days." A passage such as this is perhaps best seen as an emblem of Ashbery's fascination for that from which he should, at first glance, recoil. For what is a cliché but a stiffened formulation? Many clichés—"strong as a bull," "stubborn as a mule," "clear as crystal"—are but metaphors rendered dead through overuse. An imagistic comparison is especially apt, so gains wide currency as a formulated simile, and thus loses its ability to spur a perception of resemblances. Ashbery's work is full of similes and metaphors, many of them banal ("the pebbled shore of truth," "the wood of general indifference" ["In a Boat"], others simply nonsensical. Clichés and empty similes and metaphors are accepted by Ashbery; he consents to them finally because, after all, they contribute to our definition of ourselves.

Of course, Ashbery as a rhetor of the detritus of our culture usually does not choose merely to highlight banality for its own sake. Rather, he uses clichés and verbal formulas to establish a mood, a tonality among the many in the poem as moods flash, dissolve, perhaps reemerge, perhaps become transmogrified, perhaps fade again. Such is the case with "A Sparkler," where the onslaught of clichés early in the poem bespeaks a simple and modest honesty of emotion that does not need eloquence of presentation, that shuns high drama—a simple modesty consolidated in the final observation of the poem:

What is beheld is whatever lives,
Is wildly unappetizing and inappropriate,
And sits, and fits us.

Such is the case, too, with the use of clichés in "As We Know," where the story crystallizes from the vague "day you did it" to the descriptive commonplace, "You slid down on your knees / For those precious jewels of spring water." People in bad novels and bad plays are always sliding to their knees; "precious jewels" is even more banal. And yet the effect here is poignant. We do not really know why the unspecified "you" is desperate, but "you" certainly is. There is that typical Ashbery sense of absence, of loss, here—the price to be paid for his fundamental strategy of loss—and the effect is typically haunting. "You," whoever it is, "had to stop," for "there was no other way to appear," and now "you" is prostrate beside a stream. Next, with an ambiguous "And" (Ashbery's coordinating conjunctions often contain no logical force, either in argument or in narrative), "you" is teetering "on the edge" of a "calm street," confronted by a menace or a specter that could have been taken from any number of bad horror films: "As though they are coming to get you." We do not know if the "And" participates in the subordinate clause or whether it initiates a separate coordinate clause of its own; it probably does not matter. The enticing particulars, with their undertones of anguish, desperation, even fear, are what matter. These particulars—a mossy stream (we assume), a calm street with sidewalks and traffic (how calm, then?)—are, it must be noted, not overly specified. Nor were the "treetops" with "steeple," the "stair," or even the windows with their "fixed flashing," a detail more cryptic than precise.

And thus we encounter another tactic integral to Ashbery's aesthetic: his images are not to be prized for their exactitude or their evocative naturalism. Ashbery, like Pierre Reverdy, may be interested in giving us "un paysage naturel,"12 but such a natural landscape has little to do with the obsessive rendering of sensory particulars. Ashbery is not competing with the scientists for the honors of a specious exactitude; unlike many other poets of our time, he is not contriving to deliver, in the best modern fashion, all the streaks on a tulip. Such a representational neurosis has, in fact, given us but another set of conventions called realism, to be used by good and bad writers alike. Ashbery, a poet as much among modern painters as his friend Frank O'Hara, gives us particulars that are so enticing precisely because they are so unspecified, so elusive. Even the stock scenes he gives us, the clichés, become, by virtue of their participation in the flux of the tale or argument, tantalizingly unclear, part of the "all-purpose model." This effect, of course, is strongly dependent upon Ashbery's skill in manipulating the precarious ambiguities of his neosurrealist descriptive style. We may be unable finally to articulate in New Critical fashion the stratagems contributing to the mood of an Ashbery scene, but a mood, and not a mere chaos, had better be there. The movement from a mossy stream via an ambiguous conjunction to an urban street may not be explicable in an easy referential manner, but it does need to make sense within the world of the poem.

Needless to say, surrealistic juxtaposition is a technique given to turgidity, to frenzied clottedness of matter. Ashbery has not always successfully skirted the dangers of his method. In particular, his second book, The Tennis Court Oath, capitulates almost entirely to the urge to give us a mechanical textbook surrealism, with all the surrealist accouterments: automatic writing, random juxtaposition of fragments, scissors and paste as substitutes for artistic intelligence. Self-indulgence reaches a climax in the long poem "Europe," which Harold Bloom is certainly right to call, along with most of the rest of the volume, a "fearful disaster."13 As Marjorie Perloff has noted, the disaster develops because Ashbery, at this extreme in his art, has deprived himself of even the possibility of disjunctiveness.14 "Europe" is a huge puzzle of particulars that are not juxtaposed in any real way beyond the virtual accident of their being on the pages of the poem together, and their having been drawn from the same obscure book, Beryl of the Bi-Planes.

The fact is that Ashbery's elusive images need to be placed within the more leisurely—that is to say, the more truly inclusive—program of his distorted arguments, his fragmented stories. This is the accomplishment of "As We Know":

But there was no one in the noon glare,
Only birds like secrets to find out about
And a home to get to, one of these days.

No one "coming to get you" apparently, and yet there is no comfort here. Elusive, dissolving particulars give us still another sense of absence, a dreamlike sense of the absence of afternoons. A "glare" is a suffusion, an enveloping emptiness of light. Within it, only "birds like secrets to find out about" await, and the simile lets us know what we might already have assumed: that there may be some unspecified secret behind all of this, behind or perhaps even constitutive of "it." And something else awaits: "a home to get to, one of these days." We did not know there had been a journey; at least, a journey had not been made explicit until now in the mechanisms of the narrative. We do definitely have a sense of wandering, of exile and awaited return here. The effect of the elusive particulars again is haunting, melancholy—and yet the "home" is there.

And thus we move to the moral of the story, and to another important Ashbery tactic. Ever since The Double Dream of Spring, Ashbery's poems, arguments and narratives alike, have tended to congeal, often, but not necessarily, at the conclusion, into proverbs, maxims, homestyle aphorisms. The Greek rhetoricians called this foregrounded display of sententiousness gnōmologia, and it is pertinent to note that the Greek word gnōmōn means "one that knows"—here, a knowing that gets expressed through utterance, through our conversations together. Harold Bloom has attempted, with extraordinary resourcefulness, to see this knowing in Ashbery in the same light as he sees all Romantic knowing—as gnomic utterance, a kind of gift from the gods of an obsessive-compulsive Psyche. Perhaps Bloom slights the rhetorical quality of gnōmologia, a quality manifest in the conjoining of gnōmē as "judgment, maxim" and logos as "word, discourse." For the proverbial knowledge that Ashbery gives us in poems like "As We Know" and "Soonest Mended" is not a knowledge based on the lightning bolt of transcendent Romantic truth suddenly wrested from on high. Rather, the proverbs participate fully in the world of Ashbery's fencestraddling aesthetic, an aesthetic of flux which, we should remember, warns us again and again to resist the stiffening formulations of "always deducing the general from particulars."

This is the warning, and yet we have already seen that Ashbery's work is full of congealed cultural clichés and conventions. Now we see that it is also stuffed with generalized proverbs, maxims. Is the defense simply to announce, in engaging Emersonian fashion, that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds? Or can we, using that other determined practitioner of inconsistency, Walt Whitman, assert that Ashbery is large, that his work contains multitudes?

Ashbery is large, he does contain multitudes, and with a largess a good deal less egotistical than Whitman's. But, in fact, the contradiction is apparent, not real. The clichés and conventions, the precious banality, provide us, we have seen, not easy answers, but rather ourselves in all our difficulty—"the charity" of our "hard moments" ("Soonest Mended"). These stock scenes and phrases in Ashbery's work give the reader something to hold on to, a model of particulars that are particulars and yet are so unspecified—because so common—that we are left, not with the referential terms of the story, but with the structure of the story itself, in its complex interplay of tone and feeling. In like manner, the proverbs and aphorisms of Ashbery's poetry provide judgments and knowing—provide, that is, both the hortatory and propositional poles of discourse—but deliver them in a manner that leaves us free from easy generalized answers. Indeed, we are free of easy deductions because, again, although the proverbs make sense to us, we do not really know what they mean, to what they refer. Proverbial wisdom thus becomes a gesture based on the appeal of the epideictic. There is a sharing in the gravity of Ashbery's proverbial knowing, a sharing—and a solace—made possible precisely by the lack of a referent for that knowing.

The light that was shadowed then
Was seen to be our lives,
Everything about us that love might wish to examine,
Then put away for a certain length of time, until
The whole is to be reviewed, and we turned
Toward each other, to each other.

This is all perfectly reasonable. The syntax is complicated but coherent: a kernel proposition, followed by a long appositional construction, followed by a conjunctive addition to the original independent clause (quibblers might place the concluding coordinate clause within the preceding subordinate clause, which is itself part of the long apposition). As Jonathan Holden has noted, Ashbery uses syntax in writing as the "equivalent of 'composition' in painting: it has an intrinsic beauty and authority almost wholly independent of any specific context."15 The authority of the syntax, the grave measured cadence to these solemn thoughts, can almost blind us to the fact that, although we are moved, perhaps comforted, by the lines, we do not know what they are about. The "light" refers to the preceding dreamlike "noon glare," but it is a surrealistic "shadowed" light, and although we accept the equation now established between the light and "our lives," we have no reasons for doing so. Ashbery does not work out a clever and dialectical conceit from the equation. Rather, the syntax tells us to accept it—the syntax, and the cunning use of the passive voice. Perhaps "was shadowed" is itself passive; it is either passive or an odd linking verb with an adjectival subject complement. But the other two uses of passive here are less ambiguous and more important: the light "was seen to be our lives," and the whole "is to be reviewed." Ashbery's battery of tactics within verb phrases is reminiscent of Wallace Stevens's. Both poets eschew active, transitive verbs; both reveal a preference for the copula, for the passive, for qualifiers ("might wish," "as though" in this poem).16 In Ashbery, these tactics are, again, emblems of his epistemological modesty; nothing is ever certain within the flux. We often do not know for sure who did what to whom and when in Ashbery's poems. The poet is reluctant to make unqualified assertions of precise transitivity. The passive remains especially indeterminate because it is usually accompanied by a deletion of the "by" phrase, a deletion not always justified by our knowledge of the context. The "light" was "seen to be our lives"; we read this and assume "seen by us." But the appositional construction then goes on to make the curious equation: the light that was seen is "Everything about us that love might wish to examine." So perhaps it is "love" that is doing the seeing, but how can "love" see? This is another tactic common in Ashbery, a tactic particularly congruent with his use of the passive. There is a further instance of it later in this same poem: "The way we had come was all we could see / And it crept up on us, embarrassed." Other examples abound in Ashbery's poetry: "Some departure from the norm / Will occur as time grows more open about it," "Time is sorting us all out," "Pursuing time this way, … / You find it has doubled back," "… the historical past owed it / To itself, our historical present," "What was one day to be / Removed itself as far as possible from scrutiny."17

These are all instances, of course, of personification. In his use of this figure Ashbery differs considerably from the Romantics, who employed it with such abandon that one of its permutations came to merit its own name, the "pathetic fallacy." Typically, in its central and most impressive usage, personification would be wed to apostrophe. The Romantic poet would, in addressing a mountain or a bird or the wind, personify the natural object or phenomenon with the hope of investing himself and his work synecdochally in the eternal via what Coleridge called the "translucence" of the image become symbol.18 Ashbery's personifications, on the other hand, very seldom address natural objects precisely because the natural object does not, for him, furnish a symbolical road to the sublime. Rather, his personifications are a kind of coy shorthand for the flux that we engender in living the tales of our lives. It is no accident that our examples feature the personification of "time." Even when the word itself is not "time," it is a virtual synonym: the "way," the "past," "What was one day to be." We see here that Ashbery does not personify natural objects, but rather the abstract terms that he uses to describe the flux of things—to describe, that is, "it." Perhaps the presupposition behind this tactic is most explicitly stated in "All Kinds of Caresses": "Our gestures have taken us farther into the day / Than tomorrow will understand. / They live us." Our gestures, our tales, constitute us, and so, in a way, live us. But it is our having lived them that enables them to live us. Clichés and conventions are formulated gestures that now live us through having been lived so often; personification and the passive likewise are tactics that tell us we are being lived by what we have ourselves done—and what we have done, however often stiffened into formulation, is flux, is "it."

The proverb progresses: the "whole is to be reviewed," perhaps recalling the "doing" earlier that had to be stopped because it involved "the whole fabric." And then the conclusion:

To turn toward each other is to attempt a balance against the fundamental absences of our being. The obtrusive repetition of the prepositional phrase here, and of the adverb "now" at the end, gives the passage its gravity, its poignancy. The story is over; the moral is drawn. We do not really know what the story was about, but we do know it was about "it," about an unspecified and haunted "you" with "a home to get to, one of these days." Perhaps the last strophe, with its turn "Toward each other," with its conjoining, its "we," is home. Perhaps home is the place where "you" has to go. That this "you" becomes "we" and that the turning toward "each other" is couched within the staid and comforting rhythms of the proverbial are indications of Ashbery's recent serenity, an emblem of his mature acceptance of absence and his concomitant recognition of the enduring possibilities of love.

The motto for As We Know might very well be "there is so much to tell now, really now." The predominant serenity of Houseboat Days, the willingness to settle for a "ride in common variety" ("Variations on an Original Theme"), continues in this most recent volume. The poet, willing to acknowledge, as he does in "Late Echo," that "there really is nothing left to write about," nonetheless sees great value in this exercise in only apparent futility: "Or rather, it is necessary to write about the same old things / In the same way, repeating the same things over and over / For love to continue and be gradually different." The writer thus addresses himself to his art for the sake of ethics, for the sake of continuing, changing love. And he acknowledges, too, that his tactics in this latest volume are not at all different from those he has employed all along. Indeed, one does not read Ashbery with an eye for the development of key images and metaphoric ideas; one does not read Ashbery the way one reads Yeats or Eliot or any other symbolist poets whose works are congenial to the mechanisms of New Critical analysis. It is true that Three Poems, with its explicit drive for greater inclusiveness, does seem to mark a turning point in Ashbery's career as a poet. And it is true that "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," so atypical in its tactics, and so solemn a Romantic rumination on the ordering imagination of the artist, seems, with its remarkable concluding supplication for the blurring of life and art, to have prepared Ashbery for the less strained, more serene "common variety" of Houseboat Days and As We Know. But, in fact, most of Ashbery's typical tactics—everything from similes to clichés to "it," from the use of the passive to the pronoun "polyphony" to the surrealism—have been apparent in his work from the start.

Thus, when we encounter what seems like an aberrant new form in the long, stunning dialogue "Litany," we are justified in seeking hidden precursor principles for such formal tactics in Ashbery's earlier work. They are not hard to find. "Litany" gives us, after all, a continuation, an exfoliation, of the dialogue form of "Fantasia on 'The Nut-Brown Maid,'" the concluding poem of Houseboat Days. That earlier long poem, with its almost ritualistic and oddly affirmative neurasthenia, presents an unspecified "He" and "She" whose exchanges, one not really distinct from the other, perhaps constitute, in the words of "She," an attempt to "play to our absences and soothe them." "We may as well begin the litany here," "She" says at an early point in "Fantasia," but the principles behind the dialogic form of both "Fantasia" and "Litany" are in Ashbery's work from the start. For what are Ashbery's dialogues but logical developments of his pronoun "polyphony," culminations of his insistence on a most un-Romantic indeterminacy of identity? "He" and "She" in "Fantasia" are not specified. One wastes one's time looking for psychological distinctions, character development. Similarly, in "Litany," whose columns are "meant to be read as simultaneous but independent monologues," the two voices sometimes circle, sometimes transfuse, sometimes mimic, sometimes have nothing to do with each other. Neither voice has a distinct character, a distinct identity. Taken together, the voices give us a polyphony, an especially capacious "all-purpose model." But their conjoining does not represent the sum of two different parts, for Ashbery will simply not grant himself the easy generalization of verisimilitude, of stable character according to the conventions of realism.

Similarly, the easy answer of Romantic wholeness of form is not available in "Litany"; the poem cannot properly be said to be "about" anything. Certain rough distinctions can be made between the three sections of the poem—the last section, for instance, has the strongest religious cast in its phrasing as the "Litany" is realized—but these distinctions probably lack real explanatory power. For the poem is, again, a flux; it lacks by design the strategic impulse toward a generalized transcendence that confers upon the great poems of English Romanticism their organic wholeness of synecdochal form. "Litany" is, after all, a poem that ends with one column telling us we "need" the "rows of windows overlooking / The deep blue sky behind the factory," and the other busy requesting a rectification of a clerical error made with regard to payments for a tape recording.

This latest long poem by Ashbery represents a culmination of the poet's seriously cultivated modesty, and it displays, in expansive, leisurely fashion, virtually all the tactics toward modesty that we have seen appear throughout most of his work. The triumph in "Litany" is its leisureliness, the space it allows an Ashbery, unfettered from epistemological despair over the relation between saying and being,19 to stretch out, to use for poetry, as Kenneth Burke, another genial rhetor, says one should use for criticism, "all that is there to use."20

Thus, we get anything and everything in "Litany": posturings and parody, homilies and lectures, absurd rhymes and absurder reasons, and love—always love. It may be love expressed in artifice, in eclogue: "The lovers saunter away. / It is a mild day in May." It may be love expressed in the rhetoric of the greeting card:

Remember me now
Remember me ever

And think of the fun
We had together

A friend.

It may be love discussed in the frank rhetoric of our time: "We fucked too long, / Though, you see." More than ever, it is this love—or, rather, the possibility of it—that is at the center of Ashbery's modest and yet so inclusive art:

And I too am concerned that it
Be this way for you. That you
Get something out of it too.

"Litany" is full, as no other Ashbery work is, of images of absence, of loss, of interstices. Sea, sun, sky, the emptiness of time and climates: we return obsessively to these images, to the fundamental absences of being inherent in such spaciousness. But always, too, we have love and a kind of good-humored serenity; always we are told by the poet that "I do care." And furthermore, for all the absence of "joy," of ecstatic peaks of feeling, we are given the telling affirmation that "Happiness has not" finally been "lacking"—for the poet, or, he thinks, for any of us as humans, as "beings made of / Love and time." Again, this is modesty—a modest aesthetic, and necessarily, since they are inextricably conjoined, a modest ethic. "Litany" is, in this sense, a long voyaging through a flux of epideictic gestures, a voyaging whose ethical center is suggested in "This Configuration":

Or it may be that we are ordinary people
With not unreasonable desires which we can satisfy
From time to time without causing cataclysms
That keep getting louder and more forceful instead of dying away.

How many poets since Blake, Coleridge, and Shelley have been able to tell us, as Ashbery does here, that they are, in some way, "ordinary people"—"Brushing the teeth and all that" ("Soonest Mended.")—and that there is "happiness" in that modest recognition? Certainly not many lyric poets. For such modesty as Ashbery gives us, and for such a consequent inclusiveness, we have to turn to the world of fiction, to the world of the novel, with its social and encyclopedic thrust. Of course, the novel typically has been bound by the very conventions of realism that Ashbery passes well beyond. But Ashbery's ethics in As We Know do remind us, at times, of a figure as remote, and yet as similarly decent, as E. M. Forster. Midway through the second section of "Litany" Ashbery says:

Yet the writing that doesn't offend us
(Keats' "grasshopper" sonnet for example)
Soothes and flatters the easier, less excitable
Parts of our brain in such a way as to set up a
Living, vibrant turntable of events,
A few selected ones, that nonetheless have
Their own veracity and their own way of talking
Directly into us without any effort so
That we can ignore what isn't there.

Thus, one of the manifold voices in "Litany" gives us as explicit a rendering of Ashbery's ars poetica, of his solution to the "problem" of art, as we are likely to get. What is wanted is a "Living, vibrant turntable of events" that solves the dilemma of formulation in art, and its necessary exclusiveness, precisely by being "vibrant" enough in its living opacity, in its rendering of the flux of its own telling, to enable the reader to "ignore" all that inevitably "isn't there." An "all-purpose" model that connects the prose and the subdued passion, but in the connection exalts both—that is what Ashbery gives us in "Litany." His long-cultivated tactics against transcendence bear fruit here in a poetry as capacious as any of our time—in a poetry as capacious, in fact, as the fiction to which so many of our best contemporary poets have consigned all too many of their imaginative possibilities. Good art, Ashbery tells us again in Litany."

These are "words" that have "mattered," as the conclusion of "Litany" tells us. For all the difficulty of their determined ordinariness, of their uncertain grasping of the flux of "what continues," these are "words" that are "going to be enough—will have to be" for beings as modest as ourselves. As readers of Ashbery, we need to be attentive to the tactics of their formulation.


1 I mention or quote from the following volumes by Ashbery: As We Know (New York: Viking Press, 1979); The Double Dream of Spring (1970; rpt. New York: Ecco Press, 1976); Houseboat Days (New York: Viking Press, 1977); Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (New York: Viking Press, 1975); Some Trees (1956; rpt. New York: Ecco Press, 1978); The Tennis Court Oath (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1962); and Three Poems (New York: Viking Press, 1972). I use the following abbreviations for the first four volumes: AWK, DDS. HD, and SPCM.

2 See "Corsons Inlet," in Ammons's Collected Poems, 1951-1971 (New York: Norton, 1972), p. 148.

3 "Reverdy en Amérique," Mercure de France, 344 (January 1962), 110-11.

4 "John Ashbery: Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," Five Temperaments (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 183.

5 Louis A. Osti, "The Craft of John Ashbery: An Interview," Confrontation, 9 (Fall 1974), 89.

6 This is from a brief autobiographical statement provided in the "Biographies and Bibliography" section of A Controversy of Poets: An Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, ed Paris Leary and Robert Kelly (Garden City, NY.: Doubleday, 1965), p. 523.

7 "The Impossible," Poetry. 90, No. 4 (July 1957), 251.

8 The phrase is from Laurence Lieberman's long essay on Ashbery in Unnssigned Frequencies: American Poetry in Review. 1964-77 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977), p. 12.

9 "Coleridge's Writings," Westminster Review, n.s., 29 (1866), 108. Harold Bloom provides a typically strenuous perspective on the Paterian view of Coleridge in "Coleridge: The Anxiety of Influence," the opening essay of Figures of Capable Imagination (New York: Seabury Press, 1976), pp. 1-17.

10 Quoted in The Craft of Poetry: Interviews from "The New York Quarterly," ed. William Packard (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974), pp. 123-24.

11 The first example is from "Sleeping in the Corners of Our Lives," p. 71; the second, "And I'd Love You to Be in It," p. 89; the third, "Figures in a Landscape," p. 75.

12 "Reverdy en Amérique," p. 111.

13 "John Ashbery: The Charity of the Hard Moments," Figures of Capable Imagination, p. 172.

14 The perception is advanced in Perloffs '"Mysteries of Construction': The Dream Songs of John Ashbery," which is chapter 7 of her forthcoming book, The Poetics of Indeterminancy: Rim-baud to Cage (Princeton University Press).

15 "Syntax and the Poetry of John Ashbery," American Poetry Review, 8, No. 4 (July/August 1979), p. 37.

16 Perloff is discerning here, as she is on many of the antisymbolist tactics in Ashbery's work.

17 The first example is from "Saying It to Keep It from Happening" (HD, p. 29); the next three examples are from "Fantasia on 'The Nut-Brown Maid'" (HD, pp. 73, 81, and 86); the final example is from "Variation on an Original Theme" (AWK, p. 107).

18 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Statesman's Manual (London, 1816), p. 230.

19 Holden approaches Ashbery from this angle.

20The Philosophy of Literary Form, 3rd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), p. 23.

Bonnie Costello (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8568

SOURCE: "John Ashbery and the Idea of the Reader," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. XXIII, No. 4, Fall, 1982, pp. 493-514.

[In the following essay, Costello explores the relationship between author and reader in Ashbery's verse.]

"My way is, to conjure you"
—Epilogue, As You Like It

It has been fashionable in the last decade to discuss separately the writer's attention to his act of composition and the reader's experience of that composition. But rather little has been said about the writer's idea of the reader, about his dependence on the reader, his sense of the gap between fictive and actual reader, his efforts to overcome or deny that gap. Reading is as much Ashbery's subject as writing is, and it is through his idea of reading that his self-reflexiveness escapes banal solipsism and opens onto larger questions of communication. In Rivers and Mountains Ashbery first uses the reader as his model for the experience of otherness and he continues this habit throughout the seventies, increasingly inscribing the reader in the text to the point of a second column in "Litany." Such reflections on the reader do not reduce the meaning of the text, but on the contrary give immediacy to its great themes. Here is not the image of experience but experience itself, not the record of a relationship but the establishment of one.

Convexity is Ashbery's paradigm of the psychic and ontological distance between writer and reader, and the circumscribed eternity of the work of art. It marks the artist's yearning and failure to escape the confines of his medium to reach the reader's present. Conversely, it marks the reader's sense of being surrounded but not enclosed in the world of a text, the 180° panorama of art's illusion. By the image of convexity the desire between writer and reader is linked to the larger structure of thought which characterizes Ashbery's work, the paradoxes and patterns of assertion and denial which gesture toward but never yield to the mind of the reader. Convexity in Ashbery is also the spatial equivalent of his concept of temporality, the present no point in a hierarchy but a moment passed through, receding as it arrives like a point along a convex curve. And it is the temporal condition of art, its frustrating pattern of deferral and belatedness, which Ashbery makes his major theme, continuing a meditative tradition from Marvell through Keats to Whitman and Stevens.

Ashbery is of course not merely talking about writing and reading literature, acts which take up a relatively minor part of the average person's life, if a major part of the poet's. The poet's experience of the text becomes his vantage point for considering all experience, and the condition of textuality is for him characteristic of the condition of all consciousness. These themes arise early in his work, but they come into focus for him in the seventies, particularly in the poem "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" and the volume named for it, which established him as the major poet of the decade.1

An unidentified "you" inhabits the pages of Ashbery's work, especially in the seventies, and critics have speculated variously on the role and nature of this ubiquitous, amorphous "other," suggesting that the "you" serves as a reimagined self, an erotic partner, a syntactic counter-word. It serves, of course, all of these functions; its importance lies in its ambiguity. Ashbery's own remarks in a New York Quarterly interview are equivocal, but they still help us to understand the function of the second person pronoun in his work:

my point is also that it doesn't really matter very much, that we are somehow all aspects of a consciousness giving rise to the poem and the fact of addressing someone, myself or someone else, is what's the important thing at that particular moment rather than the particular person involved.2

Addressing someone is indeed Ashbery's premise, with all the attendant problems of communication. The actual reader does not, in reading Ashbery, feel that he is overhearing a private confession, as in "To His Coy Mistress"; rather, he becomes that internal audience. He is brought inside the poem, and the rest of the world lies at the periphery of this encounter. Accepting the fruitful ambiguity of the second person pronoun, we find that Ashbery's poetry is not only fictively addressed to another, but actually addressed to us, that at least one very concrete reification of "you" is an actual reader, hypocrite lecteur, son semblable, son frère. Indeed, it is difficult, when reading an unspecified second person pronoun, not to take it personally first, however else we might go on to take it, even while we know that Ashbery's sense of us must be an abstract one. We are inscribed as readers everywhere in his pages, not only through imperatives, directives and other forms of direct discourse, but through specific references to the text and to acts of reading.

It is just such a "you" that reaches out to us uncannily from the pages of Leaves of Grass: "Who knows but I am enjoying this? / Who knows, for all the distance, but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?"3 But the self that speaks out of Ashbery's poems has never had the primacy or imperial authority of Whitman (one wonders, for that matter, how much confidence was behind the strong rhetoric of that predecessor). Nor has it the autobiographical grounding of confessional poetry. For Ashbery, identity is a composite reality and the poem a polyphony of writer and reader ("we are somehow all aspects of a consciousness giving rise to the poem"),4 an equation of which the poem is the function. "I guess I don't have a very strong sense of my own identity and I find it very easy to move from one person in the sense of a pronoun to another and this again helps to produce a kind of polyphony."5 The polyphony is most often counterpoint, culminating in "Litany," a counterpoint of "I" and "you" which checks equally the dangers of solipsism and of absorption. Some self-splitting is implicit in the act of writing, which predicates a reading, and Ashbery's work of the seventies is drawn increasingly toward the dynamics of this counterpoint.

Harold Bloom is correct, I think, in viewing The Tennis Court Oath as a swerve toward a primitive solipsism and disregard of the reader.6 The poems, while daring in their writerly qualities are finally unreadable in that the reader is excluded from them. They imply a theory of language in which communication is not a primary goal. It is concerned with the "lonesomeness of words." But in the seventies Ashbery develops a compromise between writerly and readerly qualities, recognizing his need for the reader in order to complete the language-act and thus the objectification of the self, at the same time resisting the closures of the reader's knowledge. Throughout his work of the seventies we find a deep anxiety about the textual captivity of the self, from which the reader can free him so that he is not, as he writes in "Grand Galop," "a first aid kit no one ever uses / Or a word in the dictionary that no one will ever look up." Such images, and there are many, suggest that words are to be used, that their being, and that of their messenger, is suspended in the text until they are used. This anxiety is apparent in Whitman as much as in Ashbery, and is ultimately an anxiety about non-being, an anxiety requiring not writing alone, but the belief in a reader to ward it off. This is, I think, why the dream must be double; why Ashbery casts himself as a beholder, a "reader" of visual art, in "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror"; why Three Poems is concerned with performance and audience; why "Litany" inscribes a responsive reading, however unresponsive in tone and content the second column is; why, like Scheherezade, the title of a poem in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Ashbery is so long-winded; and why the dream songs of The Tennis Court Oath and Rivers and Mountains increasingly give way to public performance in later work, however dreamlike those performances may be. Ashbery knows that an inevitable solipsism infects the process of writing and reading, that the reader will make the writer over in his own image, just as he has himself made the reader in his own image. Nevertheless, in the cross-gesturing something happens, a suture has been made at certain junctions.

Ashbery is certainly beginning to contemplate a "you" in terms of the reader in Rivers and Mountains, but his thoughts are colored by a deep ambivalence about his contract with those readers. In "The Skaters" he in-scribes the reader repeatedly, but in several places he tries to break the contract: "am afraid I'll / Be of no help to you. Good-bye." "The Recent Past" concerns the temporality of language, in which meanings dissolve as they arise, but it could almost be autobiographical as well, not only summing up the movement of all of Ashbery's poems, but recapitulating both the tendency in Some Trees to double the self, to make "you" a mirror of "me," and the destructive impulse in The Tennis Court Oath to erase both parties:

You were my quintuplets when I decided to leave you
Opening a picture book the pictures were all of grass
Slowly the book was on fire, you the reader
Sitting with specs full of smoke.

"A Blessing in Disguise," which shows the influence of Whitman, once again embraces this affronted you. The terms of the encounter fit precisely the encounter of writer and reader, with its merging and confusing of identities, its simultaneous plural and singular references (readers are one and many):

And I sing amid despair and isolation
Of the chance to know you, to sing of me

Which are you. You see,
You hold me up to the light in a way

I should never have expected, or suspected, perhaps
Because you always tell me I am you …

I prefer "you" in the plural, I want "you,"
You must come to me, all golden and pale
Like the dew and the air.
And then I start getting this feeling of exaltation.

But this ideal reader, like Shelley's epipsyche, continually evaporates as the writer awakes to the opacity of the page.

The Double Dream of Spring begins a much more readerly phase of Ashbery's poetry, offering a legibility that nevertheless preserves a sense of the world as an illegible text in which everyone's fate is cryptically inscribed. Against the background of this vaster text the writer encounters the reader in "fragments" of communication, exploring the patterns of desire and power implicit in that relationship. The love relation recorded in the sentence fragments and pseudo-narrative of "Fragment" is repeatedly enfolded in the immediacy of the text so that it is hard not to identify with the unnamed addressee, not to understand the affair in terms of the bond of art. Writing is indeed for the poet "the only real beginning," "the end of friendship with self alone."

One's reality is always a fiction from the point of view of another and the other is always invented by the imagination that desires it. Such a dynamic is exaggerated in writing, for the writer's audience is necessarily a fiction, his will over it both total and impotent. The reader of a text does not exist without the writer's fiat, and yet the reader may be recalcitrant or may remain a fiction never summoned to proof.

Not forgetting either the chance that you
Might want to revise this version of what is
The only real one, it might be that
No real relation exists between my wish for you
To return and the movements of your arms and legs.
But my inability to accept this fact
Annihilates it. Thus
My power over you is absolute.
You exist only in me and on account of me
And my features reflect this proved compactness.

The slippage in the term "real" here is typical of Ashbery, but it is also characteristic of the double reality of writing and reading, trying to become one reality. The perfect contract would be a countertext offered by the reader in which the points of intersection could be identified: "I want it all from you / In writing, so as to study your facial expressions / Simultaneously … / Your plans run through with many sutured points."

Houseboat Days continues this sense of the poet's ambiguous power and impotence in relation to writing. His will to meaning is caught in temporality, his identity locked in signs, but in the act of writing his idea of a reader saves him from the solipsism and complacency of thought. "Collective Dawns" in particular develops this theme:

Such "bread and butter letters" belong to a pattern of mutuality and conflict in Ashbery's story of "you" which is derived from his idea of the reader. The love which occurs, like Donne's, in the portable rooms of the text draws on all the tensions of social and domestic love in the world, the shifting relations of dominance, patterns of dependence, of mutuality and aggression, narcissism and self-effacement, ecstasy and disillusion. Together writer and reader in "No Way of Knowing"

but this "camaraderie that is the last thing to peel off, / Visible even now on the woven pattern of branches" must also finally be seen as an illusion, a fiction first of the writer's, then the reader's. Ashbery's general cries of desire seem to reach directly to the reader as he vies against the belatedness of reading. "Why can't you spend the night, here in my bed, with my arms wrapped tightly around you." Writing is always in a sense unrequited since no voice responds out of the written page. The artist's desire is to move the beholder in an immediate way ('"Parmigianino wished to impart the sense of novelty and amazement to the spectator'" and for a moment he can seem to succeed, for the beholder will "forget stand-offishness, exact / Bookkeeping of harsh terms but he is always fickle, never keeps his promise of attention." "Pope Clement and his court were 'stupefied' / By it, according to Vasari, and promised a commission / That never materialized."

The fictive reader, unlike the recalcitrant actual reader, is infinitely faithful and submissive. "I want to concentrate on this / Image of you secure and projected how I imagine you / Because you are this way where are you you are in my thoughts." By inscribing the reader in the text ("you reading there so accurately") the writer brings him in close where he can be watched, but at the same time marks him as a fiction, a puppet to be acted on symbolically, with the hopes that this magic will penetrate to the heart of the actual reader. The writer maintains the knowledge that writing and reading require the very solitude and silence they are designed to dispel. Ashbery writes in "Lithuanian Dance Band": "Yet we are alone too and that's sad isn't it / Yet you are meant to be alone at least part of the time / You must be in order to work."

By including a respondent the poet can have his privacy and his validation, although often, as in "Litany," the respondent serves to check the autocracy of the writer and prove the isolation of the reader. But in "The Tomb of Stuart Merrill" Ashbery quotes a reader, after the fashion of Paterson, as though to prove not only the reality of his reader but his own power over him. Here is a reader who has been perfectly seduced (the erotic model not overlooked) by Ashbery's method of rumoring enlightenment.

"I have become attracted to your style. You seem to possess within your work an air of total freedom of expression and imagery, somewhat interesting and puzzling. After I read one of your poems, I'm always tempted to read and reread it. It seems that my inexperience holds me back from understanding your meanings.

"I really would like to know what it is you do to 'magnetize' your poetry, where the curious reader, always a bit puzzled, comes back for clearer insight."

This is an image of the infatuated reader and the writer as tease, promising but never following through with the consummation of meaning.

Ashbery is constantly testing his authorial power, underscoring the implicit imperative of all writing (read!). He will provoke the reader with perverse behavior, momentarily suspending the fact that the reader can veto by his indifference.

Leading liot act to foriage is activity
Of Chinese philosopher here on Autumn Lake thoughtfully inserted in
Plovince of Quebec—stop it! I will not.

The reader, "fruit and jewels / Of my arrangement" must follow his bidding. But this self-assurance is repeatedly mocked by images of the reader's forgetfulness, lapses of attention, ultimate silence. The will to be heard carries on after "sleep had stopped definitively the eyes and ears / Of all those who came as audience" and poetry is left "in creases in forgotten letters / Packed away in trunks in the attic." The writer doesn't have the mastery over the reader ("besides, you aren't paying attention any more") or even over his text, except insofar as he has preempted the reader's recalcitrance by including it.

The motive of writing as the desire for a reader can be seen in many of the poems of Houseboat Days; indeed in many of the poems in the book writer and reader seem to be the only existences, like a pair on the ark, on the flood of time. "Friends" uses as epigraph a note by Nijinsky which characterizes the artist's sense of double identity—creator and audience, echoing each other: "I like to speak in rhymes, / because I am a rhyme myself." The poem begins in the haunted terror of solipsism, but yields to an image of communication, a feeling "like a pearl," a jewel found when the self is pried open by otherness. In the middle Ashbery writes:

I feel as though had been carrying the message for years
On my shoulders like Atlas, never feeling it
Because of never having known anything else. In another way
I am involved with the message. I want to put it down
(In two senses of "put it down") so that you
May understand the agreeable destiny that awaits us.

In "Valentine," the poem as love not to the reader, the mutuality is described in a process of difficult habitation, first the speaker inhabiting the reader ("the name of the castle is you") until by the end an inversion has taken place, the other's house collapsing until he has inhabited the speaker, who announces "I am the inhabitable one." Both ends of the process are met with ambivalence and difficulty ("like a serpent among roses I coil to and at you") until "[your] base slips out of slight" and the writer establishes him. It is just such a migration that occurs in the process of reading, in which a writer's self dwells in the mind of a reader until that fictive self becomes the reader's reality. And yet "my back is as a door to you." The give and take continues.

The metaphysics of reading is encountered most directly and successfully in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Most of the poems in Self-Portrait are concerned in one way or another with the balance of the equation forming writer and reader; they contain frequent direct addresses to the reader and references to the act of reading, as well as related images of story-telling and hearing, message-sending and receiving, performances and audiences.

The volume's title poem is Ashbery's chief meditation on the ontology of art, and on the idea of the beholder. His brilliant choice of Parmigianino's self-portrait permits rich permutations of artist and beholder. Here Ashbery puts himself in the position of the beholder (analogously, the reader) even while he is also creating his own self-portrait in expectation of a beholder. The mirror reminds us that a text, whether we are its writer or its reader, calls for both active and passive responses, that the artist is always both creator and beholder, that he is looking intensely at himself but at the same time at the imagined beholder, who in turn sees intermittently himself and the artist. These multiple identities slide into and out of one another in the course of the poem, as they do in the course of all creative or interpretive activity.

Art is an experience of absorption, but when the image is one of self-absorption, the beholder feels excluded, denied. This problem is raised on several levels in the work. Ashbery shifts in and out of certainty about whether he is invading the privacy of Parmigianino, or whether he as beholder is the true object of the artist's absorption. Similarly we move in and out of certainty as we respond to the "you" in Ashbery's poems, uncertain whether we are addressees or bystanders. The effect is a repeated experience of embarrassment, as when we answer to a call directed to another.

Some of this ambiguity is apparent at the opening of the poem where the poet leads us to expect that he will paint his own self-portrait, after the example of Parmigianino. He lets us discover belatedly, after the true example of the older artist, who "protects what he advertises," that his meditation on the painting is not a prelude to self-portraiture but rather an act of self-portraiture in its own right, as if all beholding (and all reading, by extension) could be understood as self-portraiture, that the self, in fact, can never be drawn directly. Even when the poet's meditation seems to have abandoned the portrait, the painting resurfaces from the palimpsest of reflected selves. Similarly, the primacy of the original portraitist is denied by the succession of beholders who have remade the portrait in their own image. This theme is not only described as Ashbery reflects on the painting, but demonstrated as his own authority over the meditation gives way to a succession of quotations from art critics, part of the "polyphony" of the poem:

The balloon pops, the attention
Turns dully away. Clouds
In the puddle stir up into sawtoothed fragments.
I think of the friends
Who came to see me, of what yesterday
Was like. A peculiar slant
Of memory that intrudes on the dreaming model
In the silence of the studio as he considers
Lifting the pencil to the self-portrait.
How many people came and stayed a certain time,
Uttered light or dark speech that became part of you
Like light behind windblown fog and sand,
Filtered and influenced by it, until no part
Remains that is surely you.

The pencil raised to the self-portrait is simultaneously Ashbery's and Parmigianino's here as later, when the textual representation of Ashbery which we as readers behold and the visual representation of the painter, which Ashbery as spectator beholds, merge. "A breeze like the turning of a page / Brings back your face." It is a hall of mirrors in which the original object of reflection cannot be found, in which the necessary priority of artist to beholder is momentarily obscured in a form of trompel'oeil

What is novel is the extreme care in rendering
The velleities of the rounded reflecting surface
(It is the first mirror portrait),
So that you could be fooled for a moment
Before you realize the reflection
Isn't yours. You feel then like one of those
Hoffmann characters who have been deprived
Of a reflection, except that the whole of me
Is seen to be supplanted by the strict
Otherness of the painter in his
Other room. We have surprised him
At work, but no, he has surprised us
As he works.

Ashbery does here with his shifting pronouns (you, me, we, he) just what he sees Parmigianino doing. It is an oddly double gesture both supremely realistic and conspicuously an illusion—an illusion, that is, of a reflection—the thing itself already once removed. The image of the mirror is surely, whatever else it is, Ashbery's comment on mimetic art. His self-referential gestures are like the film of Parmigianino's mirror. Like his mannerist predecessor, he offers a superrealism of the moment that itself comments on the fallacy of realism. That thought cannot escape representation ("speculation [from the Latin speculum, mirror]") and yet that representation by definition denies the presence of its object, is Ashbery's traditional but revitalized theme in this poem. He introduces it at the outset:

Is that warped image in the corner of the picture a window or a mirror, Ashbery asks, questioning implicitly the whole meaning of mimetic art. "We see only postures of the dream," representations of a reality enclosed in an inaccessible dimension. For the reader of a self-portrait this reality is the writer/artist whose existence is enclosed within the text like the genie in the bottle crying to be let out, trying to trick the reader into releasing him and his dangerous powers. By breaking the spell of mimesis, by returning Parmigianino (and himself) to the bottle, Ashbery returns us to ourselves, as readers, for better and worse, for absorption in a work of art means not only the illusion of another reality but the consequent forgetting of our own.

The seductions of mimesis are as great for the artist beholding his own work as they are for the reader. The artist at work, lifting the pencil to the canvas, is trying to merge with his work, to deny the need of an audience. To paint or write oneself into a work is to follow it out of time, or through time, but is also to become, like the genie, caught in the text. Ashbery's poems are full of images of figures caught in the mirrors and made-up countries "wasted with eternal desire and sadness, / sucking the sherbets, crooning the tunes, naming the names." This captivity is not only a metaphor for the condition of the soul, but is literally true of the condition of artistic meaning.

In "Self-Portrait" the shape of the mirror is as important and as richly significant as is its capacity to reflect. That the mirror is convex serves to bring to an extreme the problems of writing and reading which concern Ashbery here. Indeed the principle of convexity can be seen throughout the work, not only in various images, but enfolding the themes and structure of the poetry. Convexity offers an image of unfulfilled desire; it captures the pathos of meaning leaning out of but bound by representation. Convexity is the spatial representation of the flow and ebb or arrival and withdrawal that Ashbery sees as the nature of thought and which he imitates in the movement of his verse. Most of all it defines the relationship of writer and reader, those gestures made by the writer toward a listener set physically and psychically apart.

The curve of convexity suggests a completed globe, and thus an autonomous world, "a globe like ours, resting / On a pedestal of vacuum, a ping-pong ball / Secure on its jet of water." It is the same image that inspired Yeats's "Lake Isle of Innisfree." Our impulse toward that world, as beholders, is to enter and walk in it, for while it curves away from us it also seems panoramic, "refusing to surround us, and yet the only thing we see," which is the very nature of fiction, of any absorbing writing. We are absorbed, but inevitably look up to notice our own world at the edges of that fictive one. The writer, in turn, "would like to stick [his] hand out of the globe, but its dimension, what carries it, will not allow it."

But while the curved shape of convexity suggests (without yielding) the perfection of the sphere, it also causes a distortion in what it reflects. This distortion of surface, which in art is the mark of aesthetic intent, promises something "truer" harbored within the sphere of art, a spiritual dimension we do not find on the surface of nature, which we take for granted. The disproportion of hand and face in the portrait suggests different dimensions, the hand, instrument of art, "Like a dozing whale on the sea bottom," "on another scale" from the head, "the tiny, selfimportant ship on the surface" of consciousness. In terms of writer and reader, the distortion of representational surface is an invitation to communion with the artist's spirit.

Yet Ashbery also knows that these disproportions do not arise from a true transcendence of the barriers of fact, but from convexity, a superillusion, superior to the illusion of natural representation but still a lie. "The eyes proclaim / That everything is surface." As the gesture of the hand looms large, the soul (the head) retreats, a conversity of theme which structurally reinforces the convexity of the mirror. The shape of convexity gives the illusion of depth only by expanding surface. The artist can only tease the beholder with this illusion, he cannot accomplish his wish to transcend surface. Ashbery's lines similarly generate surface as they tantalize the reader with a promise of depth, and analogously, they extend our attention in time while they tease us out of time. Momentarily this confession that "everything is surface" seems to weigh him down in despair, but he rises again in the revelation that surface "is not superficial but a visible core," "pure affirmation that doesn't affirm anything."

It is, then, by engaging the reader in surface that Ashbery finds his success—not in the transcendence but in the communication of medium. Ashbery's own poetry shows an absorbing love of surface, in spectacle, in casting up images for their own sake, redundant in meaning but infinite in texture.

While Ashbery incorporates his vocational doubt into the statements of the poems, he also makes full use of style to capture and manipulate our attention, to amaze, shock, soothe, outrage, seduce us. In a sense the rhetorical shape of his poems is far more important than their matter, his metaphors more important for their spectacle than for their significance, the prose and verse rhythms more important than logic in drawing us along. He has no divinity but all the skill and equipment of a great magician; he is all surface, and yet he makes us realize that "surface is not superficial."

As "pure affirmation that doesn't affirm anything," as "the shield of a greeting," a gesture toward the reader from the writer's soul but all surface, convexity veers out and in again in the very shape of paradox. The feeling of paradox is ambivalence, and its image, oxymoron. All poetry in a sense has this shape, leaning out toward significances but receding as soon, an image of spirit, thus both disclosing and veiling it. It marks our yearning to be understood or to understand but also our shyness, our fear of possessing or being possessed. The writer's ambiguous gestures both veil and disclose his purpose, a contributing vagueness prolonging the encounter with the reader. The shuttle of assertion and denial is Ashbery's irresistible idiom, occurring in single lines which are swallowed, like little fish, by whole passages which repeat their pattern. Such is the nature of" convexity that it never pauses and one gesture is subsumed by another, thought dying on the breeze that brought it to the threshold of thought. Thus the first thrust of convexity suggests that "the soul is a captive" by advancing out of the flat surface, the second that "the soul is not a soul" by receding, and together they form a curve of asserting and denying "Like a wave breaking on a rock, giving up / Its shape in a gesture that expresses that shape."

There are many sources for "Self-Portrait," Eliot's Four Quartets, Yeats's "The Lake Isle of Innisfree," Stevens' "To an Old Philosopher in Rome." But the greatest model is Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn," in which the poet is also the audience, questioning silent images enclosed in convexity. Ashbery, like Keats, must break the spell of art, reverse the convex lens of the telescope so that the object will recede and return him to life, rather than envelop him in its "frozen gesture," its "cold pastoral." But Ashbery's ending has none of Keats's triumph in life or art, perhaps because in a self-portrait life and art are so closely entwined. Keats has little regard for the maker of the Grecian urn and much for its subjects, but Ashbery cannot avoid Parmigianino because he is the subject, and the poem is full of biographical detail. The violence of the closing image of "Self-Portrait" has the impact of a personal dread, for to reject the image of an artist is to reject himself, or to recognize that the reader will necessarily reject him in the end. Though here Ashbery himself has been reader, he is also aware that his poem, and thus his liaison with a reader, is concluding.

As the curve of the convex mirror disappears into the horizon of thought we are left with a correspondingly hollow feeling, returned to our own reality as readers, "concaved into view." It is from the evasion of such suicidal moments, lingering with the reader like Scheherezade, that Ashbery's famous sustained climaxes derive. For in recognizing the temporality of art Ashbery recognizes again his distance from the reader, his isolation in the act of writing, the lonesomeness of words.

Throughout Ashbery's poetry, with increasing frequency after Rivers and Mountains, time signatures (hours, days, seasons, tenses) mark out a pattern of waiting and belatedness. Often these signatures are connected with a circuit of communication (messages sent and received) in which objects wait for words to discover them, words for the objects they name, names for readers, readers for words in an endless system of deferred meaning both figured and enacted in the poems. These images may be metaphors for thought, but they particularly register the anxiety a writer might feel in the spatial and temporal distance from his reader. That is, the inherent duality of his activity, the need for a reader, is reinforced by its inherent temporality.

In The Double Dream of Spring and later volumes (especially in Self-Portrait) we find recurrent images of messages sent and received years later. In "Sortes Vergilianae," for instance,

Ashbery's own messages, though they appear as "whims" and "after-thoughts," do indeed make sense "in the larger context of message-receiving." We "cannot imagine" it as "being one and the same with the day it set out" because our imaginations as readers necessarily change it. Literature intensifies the truth that there is no present in communication, for the poet is all anticipation toward his reader, the reader all memory toward the poet. All literature exists, then, simultaneously in the past and in the future, but never in the present. The poems in Self-Portrait are usually less optimistic in their refrain of loss than were the poems in The Double Dream of Spring. In the later volume the messages arrive too late, or not at all, "invitations never mailed" or received after the event they announce has already taken place. In "The One Thing That Can Save America," he writes:

All the rest is waiting
For a letter that never arrives,
Day after day, the exasperation
Until finally you have ripped it open not knowing what it is,
The two envelope halves lying on a plate.
The message was wise, and seemingly
Dictated a long time ago.
Its truth is timeless, but its time has still
Not arrived.

Reading exaggerates rather than overcomes the temporality of thought, and rereading is no solution: "Just time to reread this / And the past slips through your fingers, wishing you were there." Stylistically, Ashbery ingeniously enhances the inherent temporality of his medium by undermining the grammatical, syntactic and rhetorical devices which give it stasis. Main clauses are lost in the "forward animation" of the line, subordinate clauses momentarily taking over until yet other clauses replace them. Punctuation, too, is violated, not in any conspicuous way but by allowing the grammatical subject to change in midsentence, giving the effect of a run-on sentence or fragment. Beginnings and endings tend not to match up, and middles evade dénouement, so that when we glance up from our book we are unable to say what we have been reading, even though the words are perfectly clear. Thus, while Ashbery took as his putative object of attention in "Self-Portrait" a work of visual art, perhaps because it provided the stationary qualities of a meditative object, his reflections are largely a result of his own medium, language, which has not only the historicity of all works of art, but is also experienced temporally.

Thought, for Ashbery, is caught in temporality, "the idea of what time it is" always arriving "when that time is already past." We have seen that this idea of thought derives from his artistic medium. Indeed, writing and reading become the model of all thought for Ashbery and the drama of writer and reader ultimately enacts the drama of consciousness. When consciousness is conceived as narrative fiction self-consciousness is modeled after the psychic split of a performance and audience or a writer who must imagine a reader. The desire of all consciousness, like the desire of all literature, is to end this duality through absorption. This is a major theme of Three Poems: "We know only that our sympathy has deepened, quickened by the onrushing spectacle, to the point where we are like spectators swarming up onto the stage to be absorbed into the play …". Theatrical metaphors accrue in Three Poems toward an ever postponed climax until the final decayed note of "Recital" denies the fusion, and narrative outlives consciousness: "But the idea of the spectacle as something to be acted out and absorbed still hung in the air long after the last spectator had gone home to sleep."

The fear of solipsism returns with the idea of consciousness as narrative. "The film I have been watching all this time may be only a mirror," but outside of the film is an undifferentiated blur. Images of people walking out of theatres into darkness or mist occur everywhere in Ashbery. "This world is not as light as the other one; it is made grey with shadows like cobwebs that deepen as the memory of the film begins to fade." The only alternative is launching on a new narrative path, "plunging into the middle of some other one that you have doubtless seen before." Consciousness can only bring us to the border of narrative, it cannot lead us out of it. It is only at the end of a passage that Ashbery can write, "the allegory is ended, its coils absorbed into the past, and this afternoon is as wide as an ocean" for the ocean has no speech. But what interests Ashbery most is the tension between the allegory and the ocean, between consciousness and dream, between the orders of the text and the grey mist around it. It is only as a play of contrasts that we can experience the present, the unordered force of experience which, by becoming a text, becomes the past. The acts of writing and reading, as metaphors of consciousness, stand ambiguously against the mist, defending us from its dangers but blocking its ecstasies.

That we are bound each to our own script, "It is your chapter, I said" is clear not only in Ashbery's direct statements, but in his use of cliché and his cartoon characters and stock situations. As actual readers of this record of formulaic experience we are placed at several removes from the present of the writer (like the mirror in the mirror of "Self-Portrait"), but are also able to recognize the anxieties of our own daily fictions. Our modern narrative is askew; we have the forms of old stories with a scrambled syntax. We approach the world in an allegorical frame of mind but are left suspended, too many images unexplained in a proscenium range of observation that implies significance but will not yield it. As we read experience we want beginnings, middles, ends, poetic justice everywhere, necessities of character. We find these because we seek them, but they are illegible, jumbled, mocking our pride as interpreters who think we know how information should be received. In "Soonest Mended,"

Happy Hooligan in his rusted green automobile
Came plowing down the course, just to make sure everything was O.K.
Only by that time we were in another chapter and confused
About how to receive this last piece of information.
Was it information? Weren't we rather acting this out
For someone else's benefit…?

The readers here have been absorbed by a text, have left their seats in the audience and joined the actors, but the duality remains as they are watched by someone else. They are now "thoughts in a mind / With room enough and to spare for our little problems." This is, in a sense, what happens when Ashbery inscribes the reader in his text, for in such a case we not only witness an author but also ourselves, or an image of ourselves, as readers. Since we as actual readers are reading a story about the fictions of consciousness, our illusion, our comfort in the belief in a fiction, is broken. That is, by making the fictive reader a metaphor for the experience of consciousness, Ashbery withdraws from the actual reader all the securities of fiction. By making us part of a text Ashbery undermines our secure position as beholders, exposes us to the vulnerability of the stage.

Images of experience as textuality arise in nearly every poem of The Double Dream of Spring. In this sense "Sortes Vergilianae" by its title takes on a special importance in the volume as the metaphor of a text in which all our fates are written, in which the self, the "I" is no authority but an "insatiable researcher of learned trivia, bookworm." To this larger text of consciousness the poem is "just a footnote, though a microcosmic one perhaps, to the greater curve / of elaboration; it asks no place in it, only insertion hors-texte"

But the theme of consciousness as narrative reaches its apex in Self-Portrait. Even death is absorbed within an idea of narrative closure in "Forties Flick":

Why must it always end this way?
A dais with woman reading, with the ruckus of her hair
And all that is unsaid about her pulling us back to her, with her
Into the silence that night alone can't explain.
Silence of the library, of the telephone with its pad,
But we didn't have to reinvent these either:
They had gone away into the plot of a story,
The "art" part—knowing what important details to leave out
And the way character is developed.

The movie ends with an image of a woman reading, to suggest that we cannot get past this sense of being inside a story, that even our idea of narrative is enclosed within another narrative. On the perimeters of this scene are the metaphors of oblivion, the "dark vine at the edge of the porch," the "shadows of the snake-plant and cacti," parts of a stage setting which rise at the end of the play to significance as symbols for the undoing of that setting. Details in the background, which seem at the beginning of a story mere atmospheric detail, gather significance and become epiphanies by the end of the story.

Surely this is an image of Ashbery's own reader, of the limits of the intimacy between reader and writer and of the blur each faces outside of their mutual world of the text. Around the act of reading are the objects of another life over which author and reader have no control, a life temporarily blocked out by the act of reading but hemming it in all along. But even this extratextual moment is woven into Gothic convention, absorbed into the decor of the Forties Flick.

Fairytale and fable structures and images, and particularly titles suggesting the teller of these tales, are typical in Self-Portrait and extend the theme of consciousness as fiction. "Scheherezade" recalls one who was herself, out of self-preservation, the author of an endless string of fables, and shows landscape infinitely converted to language and generated by it: "an inexhaustible wardrobe has been placed at the disposal / Of each new occurrence." "Most of all she loved the particles / That transform objects of the same category / Into particular ones." Through narrative we can make the world seem more copious than it is, can evade our limits. But the delightful sense of the infinite proliferation of experience as story has its panicky side as Ashbery discovers that "all efforts to wriggle free / Involved him further, inexorably, since all / Existed there to be told" and "nothing in the complex story grew outside." Narrative provides the "wardrobe" for all occurrences, but the wardrobe never feels quite natural even while we are absorbed in wearing it.

I feel as though someone had made me a vest
Which I was wearing out of doors into the countryside
Out of loyalty to the person, although
There is no one to see, except me
With my inner vision of what I look like.
The wearing is both a duty and a pleasure
Because it absorbs me, absorbs me too much.

Narrative compels us to it and entraps us within it. Even those narratives we construct that might survive the moment of telling are, if not belied, still trapped within the temporality of their medium. "Some stories survived the dynasty of the builders / But their echo was itself locked in." We are ourselves trapped in a solipsistic cycle, as both actors and audience of our own movies, but by this process we are nevertheless "restored to good humor as [we issue] / Into the impervious, evening air." As both actors and audience we make the same mistake twice but also redeem our error, objectify our fictions, insure our own readership, our own applause and thus evade doubt. Ashbery gives solipsism its due, especially the mutual solipsism of writing and reading:

"Mârchenbilder" announces its fictionality, "Es war einmal, " but at the same time our resistance. After a series of false starts, we see that only the "frugality of sleep" can prevent the endless getting and spending of consciousness, the cycle of assertion and denial. Since consciousness cannot avoid story we must inevitably surrender to it, but it only takes us astray, removes us from the "rainbow" of illumination. "As we advance, it retreats; we see / We are now far into a cave." Within that cave, though, our complete absorption in story feels like the threshold of illumination. Stories are "empty cupboards" but "beautiful as we people them / With ourselves." Like the genie, the poet makes fools of us by granting our wishes, but "the third wish unspoken" holds out the promise of a humble satisfaction.

The reader's first wish is for the sublimity of truth, his second for beauty—Ashbery shows us the vanity of both wishes by drawing the reader onto the stage of the text. Our third, though, is for something like goodness, not the ideal goodness, sister of truth and beauty, but a sort of second cousin, the simple social virtue of a writer's contact, however qualified, with a reader. Ashbery's line is not destined for the tower of truth, though that is its apparent track, but exists for the pleasure of riding along with the reader, for the sense of communion that can be had on the way to nowhere in particular. What other function is left for the artist who sees all consciousness as trapped in fiction? Mimesis then becomes the production of mere copies, increasing our removes from the truth, as Plato thought. And irony, as Ashbery tells us in "Self-Portrait," is caught in denial.

Those assholes
Who would confuse everything with their mirror games
Which seem to multiply stakes and possibilities, or
At least confuse issues by means of an investing
Aura that would corrode the architecture
Of the whole in a haze of suppressed mockery,
Are beside the point. They are out of the game,
Which doesn't exist until they are out of it.

While mimesis and irony are dismissed, "play" is accepted as the natural mode of a "society that exists as a demonstration of itself." Play, unlike mimesis, makes no claim to the abiding truth of its images, only to their ability to satisfy an urge for self-reflection. Unlike irony, it affirms, though it affirms nothing in particular. Wherever the artist and his reader might wish to go, they surrender their will to "necessity" which "circumvents such resolutions / So as to create something new / For itself … things / Do get done in this way, but never the things / We set out to accomplish and wanted so desperately / To see come into being." The writer admits this even while he knows the reader will retrospectively "read / The perfectly plausible accomplishment of a purpose" into his "smooth, perhaps even bland (but so / Enigmatic) finish." That reading itself will be something new, an erosion by "necessity" of the author's will, a redefining of the landscape of experience.

Along with this surrender of his art comes a communal spirit which displaces the egotistical sublime. By repeatedly acting out his desires in a formulaic language, Ashbery accomplishes neither vision nor ironic distance. But he does accomplish a sense of community, a shared nostalgia for meaning. The writer's and reader's mutual yearning for each other's presence becomes the absorbing consolation for the failure to transcend the limits of the text. If language fails to name or to command, it still has the power of what anthropologists call "phatic communion," the power to create social bonds through meaningless gestures. The reader must know that the poet has nothing to tell him, but know at the same time that he is communicating with him. Writing becomes a way of perpetuating the writer's contact with other lives, and thus preserving his own. By sharing in a language we recognize as fallen, we redeem it for its social value. This is not the modernist, anti-social redemption which promises to unearth truths by shaking up old ground, whatever the casualties in communication. Rather, it is a ritual danced with the reader upon the old ground, evoking the mystery and complexity of our entrapment.


1Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (New York: Viking, 1975), title poem pp. 68-83. Subsequent references to this and other books by Ashbery will be made in the text, under the following abbreviations: ST. Some Trees (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1956); TC: The Tennis Court Oath (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1962); RM: Rivers and Mountains (New York: Holt Rinehart, 1967); DDS: The Double Dream of Spring (New York: Dutton, 1970); TP: Three Poems (New York: Viking, 1972); SP: Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror; HD. Houseboat Days (New York: Viking, 1977); AWK: As We Know (New York: Viking, 1979).

2 Janet Bloom and Robert Losada, "Craft Interview with John Ashbery," New York Quarterly, 9 (Winter 1972), pp. 224-25.

3 Walt Whitman, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," rpt. in Complete Poetry and Selected Prose, ed. James E. Miller (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959), p. 119.

4 Bloom and Losada, p. 225.

5 Bloom and Losada, p. 225

6 Harold Bloom, "John Ashbery: The Charity of the Hard Moments" in Figures of Capable Imagination (New York: Seabury, 1976), p. 171.

Thomas A. Fink (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5459

SOURCE: "The Comic Thrust of Ashbery's Poetry," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. XXX, No. 1, Spring, 1984, pp. 1-14.

[In the following essay, Fink explores the role of humor in Ashbery's verse.]

Although John Ashbery's poems seldom cause even his most devoted readers to double over in laughter, his work is persistently humorous. Perhaps the most salient aspect of this humor can be defined in negative terms: a relatively high number of sentences in the poetry seem to "ask" not to be taken seriously as the direct expression of information that matters. For the seasoned reader of Ashbery, invisible (sometimes visible) quotation marks form around any statement that is the slightest bit portentous. Noticing that a poem in the recent Shadow Train (1981)1 begins with the exhortation, "Trust me," one chuckles and realizes that this poet's language can, most of the time, only be trusted to be untrustworthy. And even when an Ashbery poem ends with a solemn, lyrical tone, all of the playfulness invariably preceding it tends to make the reader suspect that the coda, too, should be interpreted ironically.

Many of Ashbery's readers have pointed to his refusal to make "serious" statements as a central feature of the poetry, but none have fully explored the essentially comic attitude that stems from that choice or the full range of humorous effects that largely derive from it. According to David Shapiro, author of the first book-length treatment of the poet,

Ashbery's poetry is humorously and melancholically self-reflexive and sees itself as a provisional, halting critique of naäive and degraded referential poetries…. Ashbery deflates our expectation of sense, of presence, by giving us again and again the playful zone of deferred sense.2

Throughout his book, Shapiro tends to emphasize the melancholic and confrontational aspects of Ashbery's "decentering" activity rather than its abundantly humorous side: "The imagination in Ashbery speaks of a constantly agitated agon…."3 Granting that some Ashbery poems like "Europe" and sizable chunks of poems like "The Skaters" do evoke the agitation that Shapiro finds, I would consider the mock-agonistic more prevalent than the agonistic.

David Lehman, I believe, comes closer to Ashbery's dominant tone in a characterization of his irony:

At home with an essential homelessness among ideologies and programs, adrift and yet secure in the houseboat of his days, he has resisted the temptation to fill up vacancies with reassuring convictions…. What Ashbery calls "a tongue-and-cheek attitude" permits him to find a certain congeniality in situations of maximum uncertainty….4

If Ashbery welcomes uncertainty with open arms, and he does, it is also with a powerful sense of fun.

In "Fresh Air: Humor in Contemporary American Poetry," John Vernon perceives two "camps" of poetic humorists and places Ashbery firmly in one of them: "The humor of these poets" (who include Kenneth Koch, James Tate, and others in the New York school, of which Ashbery is a charter member, and several Beat poets) "hovers between surrealism and a kind of epistemological skepticism, a refusal to mean or to respect meaning."5 Vernon believes that this "camp" has adopted premises very similar to the omnitextual deconstructive philosophy of Jacques Derrida:

If we unpeel all the layers of language around us, tracing words back to their sources in other words, and still other words, what we find behind it all is not a "world" or "reality" or a presence of any kind, but simply an absence…. If there's a gap between words and things, then why not release words to play on their own, joke around, display themselves, invent, shuffle, entertain?6

I would certainly agree that deconstruction provides fruitful approaches to Ashbery's texts, but the notion of "free-play" discussed above is a limited version of both the philosophical practice and of the creation of humor in the poetry. A fuller description would account for ways in which the tendency of "words to play on their own" and "joke around" comes up against the awareness of "a 'world' or … presence" that really exists outside the realm of language. The possibility of relative descriptive accuracies within provisionally established contexts allows for the "jocoserious" dislodging of anticipated congruities and continuities. Take, for example, these blatantly "referential" opening sentences of the recent "Qualm":

Warren G. Harding invented the word "normalcy,"
And the lesser known "bloviate," meaning, one imagines,
To spout, to spew aimless verbiage. He never wanted to be president.
The "Ohio Gang" made him. He died in the Palace
Hotel in San Francisco, coming back from Alaska,
As his wife was reading to him, about him,
From The Saturday Evening Post.
(Shadow Train)

Several of these details can be found in history texts; the only two elements revealing poetic invention on Ashbery's part are the assumed definition of "bloviate"—with the striking alliteration and assonance—and the use of a quatrain break to separate "Palace" and "Hotel," thus deflating Harding's "stature." Though the first two lines are "about" words, we cannot efface their connection to "Poor Warren" Harding, ranked by many historians as the worst and most inept president the United States ever had.

Humor lies in Ashbery's careful selection and juxtaposition of details. We hear nothing of Harding's accomplishments in the White House (perhaps because there were none), and the only significant event of "Poor Warren's" abbreviated term, the Teapot Dome Scandal, goes unmentioned. Instead, Ashbery chooses a bizarre way of remembering a political leader—as one who coined two quaint words that passed out of currency soon after his death, like the poems of a minor poet. But one of the words makes possible the evocation of a historical irony: if Harding promised a "return to normalcy" after the turmoil of the First World War, it can be said that the phrase ultimately turned on him and exposed his comic insufficiency as someone too normal (mediocre) to tackle the presidency's severe challenge. To make matters even more incon gruous—and that is Ashbery's specialty—whereas most politicians must utilize all of their resources and determination to be elected president, Harding's bumbling passivity, exploited by the unsavory "Ohio Gang," brought him to a pinnacle "he never wanted."

Even the circumstances of "Poor Warren's" death serve as a source of humor for Ashbery. The parallelism, "to him, about him," underscores the somewhat narcissistic pose of a president who spent his last moments paying attention to his own publicity (spoon-fed by his wife, of course) rather than thinking about affairs of state. There is also the possibility that Harding was so appalled to learn from the Saturday Evening Post about his abysmal performance as chief executive that it killed him. In the poem's third quatrain, the absurdity of Harding's small place in history is further accentuated when Ashbery gives the late president a modern mythological status: " … a new gold star / Flashes like confetti across the intoxicating early part / Of summer …" (Shadow Train).

A superficial reading of "Qualm" might conclude that Ashbery is merely taking aim at an easy target to elicit a few chuckles, but the title of the poem seems to indicate otherwise. Perhaps the misgiving is that alien forces shaping one's experience, coupled with the reifying language of gossip-mongering journalism (or pop-historical thumbnail sketches), can inflate a simple person with common weaknesses and predilections into a ludicrous spectacle. If the speaker is indeed articulating a "Qualm," he relies on humor rather than anger to communicate a desire for change in the perspectives fostered by and in his media-drenched society.

Excessive generalization is one of the prime targets of Ashbery's comic thrust. His illustrious precursor, Wallace Stevens, obliquely aimed his potent comic darts at rigid attitudes of philosophical, spiritual, and aesthetic orthodoxy. Fond of poking fun at the inhuman immobility of ceremonial statues, which he seemed to link with a metaphysics of eternal stasis, Stevens used description and ironic commentary ("… a permanence, so rigid / That it made the General [Du Puy] a bit absurd, / Changed his true flesh to an inhuman bronze. / There never had been, never could be, such / A man."7) and wild surrealistic imagery ("… the marble statues / Are like newspapers blown by the wind."8) to put forth his humorous perspectives. In "Credences of Summer," understatement was used to mock the dull, obsessive pursuit of "plain reality" in ultra-rural "Oley": "One of the limits of reality / Presents itself in Oley when the hay, / Baked through long days, is piled in mows. It is / A land too ripe for enigmas, too serene."9 And in "The Man on the Dump," Stevens reserved the most hyperbolic of caricatures for trite, sugary hyper-romanticism:

The green smacks in the eye, the dew in the green
Smacks like fresh water in a can, like the sea
On a cocoanut—how many men have copied dew
For buttons, how many women have covered themselves
With dew, dew dresses, stones and chains of dew, heads
Of the floweriest flowers dewed with the dewiest dew.10

In such poems as "Daffy Duck in Hollywood," Ashbery has employed most of these techniques for similar purposes, but a few new strategies can be found in his bag of tricks. Unlike Stevens, Ashbery dares to begin some of his poems with the most banal general statements imaginable—and he pretends, for a little while, to mean them. Here is a diluted modern version of Emersonian/Whitmanian confidence:

I am still completely happy.
My resolve to win further I have
Thrown out, and am charged by the thrill
Of the sun coming up. Birds and trees, houses,
These are but the stations for the new sign of being
In me that is to close late, long
After the sun has set and darkness come
To the surrounding fields and hills.
(The Double Dream of Spring)

Soon, this rhetoric of exaltation has been "sullied" by the sudden appearances of several other kinds of discourse, including colloquial throwaways, advertising hype, and military terminology, and the concept of "complete" visionary happiness grows vaguer by the minute. Indeed, at the end of the poem, with its acknowledgement of "the incredible violence and yielding / Turmoil that is to be our route," (The Double Dream of Spring) the initial statement has proven comically insufficient. A similar process of "decomposition" occurs in the later "Collective Dawns," which features an equally outrageous beginning:

You can have whatever you want.
Own it, I mean. In the sense
Of twisting it to you, through long, spiralling afternoons.
It has a sense beyond that meaning that was dropped there
And left to rot.
(Houseboat Days)

The seductive immediacy of the opening line is necessarily qualified in the next breath: "having" turns into the narrower and slightly less satisfying "owning," which in turn undergoes further qualification in the less wholesome word, "twisting." Not really stable ownership at all, this "twisting" signifies the act of coercion, a psychological rather than a legal transaction, and the power-play takes valuable time to be resolved: "long, spiralling afternoons."

By the middle of the poem's second strophe, however, the will to power has failed the imagined "consumer." Some unidentifiable mayhem is confiscating even the possessions that have always been taken for granted: "They say the town is coming apart. / And people go around with a fragment of a smile / Missing from their faces" (Houseboat Days.) The rest of "Collective Dawns"—which does not "collect" anything but keeps losing or discarding whatever it has "picked up"—skips haphazardly among moments of mild hopefulness, jerky collapses, and "a weird ether of forgotten dismemberments" (Houseboat Days). Not only can "you" not "have whatever you want," but the possibility of having anything for keeps is severely questioned.

Whereas Stevens generally began his poems portentously, no matter how whimsical the tone later became, Ashbery in "Crazy Weather" makes an absurdly hackneyed conversational phrase the point of departure for a powerful lyric:

It's this crazy weather we've been having:
Falling forward one minute, lying down the next
Among the loose grasses and soft, white, nameless flowers.
People have been making a garment out of it,
Stitching the white of lilacs together with lightning
At some anonymous crossroads. The sky calls
To the deaf earth. The proverbial disarray
Of morning corrects itself as you stand up.
You are wearing a text.
(Houseboat Days)

The poet breathes zany new life into a lump of banality by ignoring its figural status and by taking it as a literal (surreal) truth. Since the weather often serves as a scapegoat for people's inner dissatisfactions and as a topic of discussion for those who have nothing to say to each other, the extended personification proves comically apt: the weather can be viewed as a loud drunk or madman whose erratic behavior is a source of annoyance.

Of course, the weather is an external force beyond human control. But Ashbery, as close to the realm of cognitive psychology as he is to an awareness of "textuality," demonstrates how people try to foster the illusion that they have mastered such forces by "translating" them into human terms. The "soft, white, nameless flowers" are safely classified as "lilacs," and the meteorological insanity is brought under control when the weather is transformed by an act of will into a material that functions solely to protect and adorn human beings. The "anonymous crossroads" where this transformation may occur, we find, turns out to be the primal scene of the poem itself, the great chiasmus where "endless' "tropical" substitutions occur. This comic, Derridean moment of naming (and un-naming) is enhanced when we realize that the word "text" derives from the Latin verb "texere," which means "to weave." In the woven fabric of this text, genuine differences between the "lightning" and "lilacs" as referents are obscured by their similarities as signs—by the link of alliteration and the not-so "anonymous crossroads" of metaphor and metonymy. Since the "origin" of interpretation has been uncovered as an irreducible dynamism, the seriousness of generalization, much less cliché, as a mode for the achievement of static interpretive truth is boisterously exploded.

Although explosions do occur in Stevens' poems ("It was / In the genius of summer that they blew up / The statue of Jove among the boomy clouds."11), the modulation from assertion to "decreation" (deconstruction?) is rarely as swift or as stunning as in quite a number of Ashbery poems. In the recent "Hard Times," for instance, after two quatrains full of conventional "wisdom" like "the power of this climate is only to conserve itself," Ashbery seems to be going along with the pessimistic view of life expressed by his speaker—without questioning the latter's simplistic rhetoric—until, in the middle of the third quatrain, the stream of prosey, general, avuncular admonitions is abruptly halted: "Get it? And / He flashed a mouthful of aluminum teeth in the darkness / To tell however it gets down, that it does, at last" (Shadow Train). At once sinister and laughably grotesque, the image of this automatic smile instantly unmasks the self-styled adviser as someone with little of substance to say who loves to hear himself say it. The illumination of aluminum reflects no universal truth or specific fact; it turns back upon its source as a physical indication that the vapid rhetoric of "Hard Times" is comically ineffective in helping anyone during decidedly "hard times."

It is one thing to say that a poet humorously punctures massive generalities; it is quite another to argue that the same poet maintains a comic outlook even when describing potential sources of major anxiety and even tragedy. In Ashbery's long poem, "The Skaters," the themes of individual loneliness, the irreparable loss of an aesthetic or theological guiding principle, evidence of pervasive human selfishness, the dread of death, and a persistently menacing world situation comprise a sizable portion of the thirty pages; nevertheless, I submit that the poem refuses the high seriousness of tragedy and the lugubriousness of black humor time and again.

One of Ashbery's ways in "The Skaters" of blunting negative emotional forces and of allowing a comic disequilibrium to hold them in check is the technique of cutting quickly from one trope, image, or discursive passage to another. The poet speaks of "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" (Rivers and Mountains). Whenever the speaker seems about to sustain a consideration of a serious topic, such as poverty ("How to excuse it to oneself? The wetness and coldness? Dirt and grime? / Uncomfortable, unsuitable lodgings, with a depressing view?"), he brings in another topic out of left field: "But to return to our tomato can—those spared by the goats / Can be made into a practical telephone, the two halves being connected by a length of wire. / You can talk to your friend in the next room, or around corners" (Rivers and Mountains) Comic ingenuity is surely no cure for poverty, but it can serve as a diversion from its bitterness. Of course, diversion itself, and not social meliorism, can be considered the actual subject of this poetic transition: the movement of the text is like the movement of a mind through its perceptions and reflections.

Aside from "the rhythm of the series of repeated jumps," Ashbery uses incongruities produced by an irreducibly double perspective (as opposed to a relentless single focus) to make sure that a predominantly comic textual atmosphere prevails over the possibilities of anguish or staid seriousness. This doubleness does not foster a "New Critical" balance or "reconciliation of opposites"; the humor "spotlights" the incompleteness of any one viewpoint, attitude, or synthesis. In part III of "The Skaters," a "professional exile's" alienation from world politics is expressed with memorable incongruity:

Simultaneously, the speaker can imagine the enormity of conflict in a relatively small and underdeveloped nation (and the complex ramifications of this event on "the lives of many individuals"), and he can acutely appreciate how commercial packaging has trivialized the event and thus drained it of significance in his eyes. As appalling as it may seem to realize that one is deriving quotidian "entertainment" from "massive expenditures" of human suffering, the absurdity of the situation can make one laugh and thus accept its current inevitability, since some news is preferable to none and since media packaging will not be changed overnight.

Some readers believe that Ashbery is a programmatic ironist who uses poetry to feel superior to everyone and everything. The poet presents this viewpoint in "The Skaters" in order to refute it:

Ashbery demonstrates in this passage that, no matter how ironic one may choose to be, uncontrollable forces can often chop the ego down to size. The comic freshness of the simile about the stage crew stems from its utterly pedestrian quality: rather than finding cosmic superpowers cowing the poor little ironist with their awesome strength, we picture ordinary young men ignoring him quite matter-of-factly as they perform a dull, routine, and seemingly endless task. "Powerless to act" in a grand drama—such as one concerning world affairs—this witness is not even potent enough to have the tiniest influence behind the scenes.

In Ashbery's writing, the sudden evaporation of individual mastery is often represented as an absurd, sometimes grotesque stripping away of physical substance or as the reification of a formerly living element. An example of each kind of figuration can be found in the space of a few lines in the zany "Variations, Calypso and Fugue on a Theme of Ella Wheeler Wilcox." The passage describes what it is like to lose the security of "some tested ideals, some old standbys" and to have "nothing to put in their place…."

For later in the vast gloom of cities, only there you learn
How the ideas were good only because they had to die,
Leaving you alone and skinless, a drawing by Vesalius.
This is what was meant, and toward which everything directs:
That the tree should shrivel in 120-degree heat, the acorns
Lie around on the worn earth like eyeballs, and the lead soldiers shrug and slink off.
(The Double Dream of Spring)

The quaint reference to Vesalius, rarified by our temporal distance from the anatomical "artist," converts what would otherwise be a horrifying image into a wildly funny evocation of the simultaneous embarrassment and joyous sense of ridiculousness experienced by someone "caught with his pants down." Ashbery, of course, tropes on the tired trope of "naked uncertainty"; skinlessness in his work often turns out to be more of an adventure than an agony. The poet, formidable surrealist that he frequently is, seizes upon the similarity in shape of "acorns" and "eyeballs" in order to convey the seemingly physical clumsiness and uselessness of a mind stripped of insight or "vision." The humor of that clumsiness, as well as the wit inherent in the choice of simile, outweighs any sense of loss in the lines: it would be extremely difficult to justify citing this passage as an example of black humor.

As I noted earlier, the collision between decentered textual "play" and gestures toward extra-textual actuality sets off a great deal of the comedy in Ashbery's poems. To identify an easily discernible manifestation of this process, there is a cross fire involving the formal (and situational) impediments to communication and the implicit opportunities for communication through language. "Wet Casements" provides a tangible example of such a conflict. In the poem Ashbery's speaker apostrophizes a person whose name was first mentioned

These lines reenact a miniature comedy of mediation: to establish contact with the person addressed in the poem, the speaker must at the very least find out his or her name; to discover that name, he must have access to a piece of paper on which it has been written; to obtain the information on the paper, he must track down the person who has it; finally, the name must be legible (after all the years), the man must still have the piece of paper, and he must be willing to turn over the information to the speaker. Once in close proximity to the name he now desires so urgently, the speaker finds it ludicrous and infuriating that so many stages—probably impossible to negotiate—lie between himself and his telos. Equally absurd is the fact (or conjecture) that the prized piece of paper (valuable only because of the purest chance) has lain, totally useless to anyone including its owner, in a deteriorating wallet for such a long time.

To curse and say, if only communication had been direct (then all would have worked out perfectly) is to forget that some form of mediation is always built into an exchange between two or more people. The speaker consciously utilizes this fact of experience in announcing his determination to express his negative emotions in the form of a work of art: "I shall use my anger to build a bridge like that / Of Avignon, on which people may dance for the feeling / Of dancing on a bridge" (Houseboat Days). The recipients of this communication make their own use of it, as the creator expects and wants, and, in turn, they create another work of art, a palimpsest, that the speaker can use for his own purpose of self-identification and validation: "I shall at last see my complete face / Reflected not in the water but in the worn stone floor of my bridge." One finds humor in the simultaneous terseness and hyperbole of this assertion and in the conscious swerving away from the fate of Narcissus.

At times, Ashbery employs the actual form of his poems to comment on difficulties of communication. The long "Fantasia on 'The Nut-Brown Maid,'" like the old British ballad noted in its title, is written in the form of a dialogue between "He" and "She," and yet the two characters hardly engage in ordinary conversation. The spatial proximity of passages labeled with two separate pronouns cannot mandate a dialogue in writing any more than two people (not signifiers) can be forced to exchange thoughts just because they have been seated together. Sometimes it is difficult to tell the two voices apart; both display rapid, often unaccountable, shifts in tone and subject matter, and both intersperse bizarre imagery with commonplaces. Each wanders chiefly in a labyrinth of semiprivate language. Immersed in tall tropes and cloudy conceptualizing, "He" and "She" find no time to "listen" attentively to each others' fears and longings.

The double-columned "Litany" takes the meta-communication of "Fantasia" a significant step further. In the latter poem, one might imagine the two speakers being able to listen to one another, but in the former, they are usually speaking at the same time! In fact, the author's note prefacing "Litany" makes it clear that conversation between the two speakers is out of the question: "The two columns of 'Litany' are meant to be read as simultaneous but independent monologues" (As We Know). The poem's form, then, calls for speculation about the communication between author and reader.

Needless to say, readers of poetry are accustomed to concentrating on one voice at a time, even if they encounter many different voices in the course of a long poem like The Waste Land or "The Skaters." But one might ask why poetry cannot be more faithful to a reality that is not so unified; whenever someone speaks, countless others are also speaking elsewhere. Why should poetry give the illusion that only one of those voices has something important to say at a given time? Perhaps Ashbery's movement in "Litany" from a single column of verse to twin columns signals an acknowledgment that all limits on poetic utterance and the production of meaning in general are arbitrary and can be obliterated.

One does not have to be another Samuel Johnson, however, to find epistemological problems with Ashbery's prefatory instructions. For the single reader who encounters "Litany" in print—let us forget about the inconceivable idea of making sense of the poem while two people are reading it aloud—simultaneous understanding of the columns is virtually impossible. He may choose to read a few lines from one column and then a few from the other or to read one whole column before turning to the other, but moving down both at once does not work for someone whose mind cannot function as a split screen or stereo system. (Whose does?) No matter how one decides to go through the poem—and all such decisions are equally arbitrary—his necessary adherence to the temporality of reading will always force him to pretend that what the author has designated as spatial contiguity is really temporal sequence. Therefore, one cannot read the poem without doing violence to the "layout" of Ashbery's stated intention.

Of course, the poet himself has played a joke on the reader by placing him at one remove from a completeness of "meaning" from the moment he begins the poem. Possibilities of poetic utterance comically (and drastically) outpace the reader's perceptual capabilities, just as a totality of events that could occur in one room in a few seconds would prove too much for one individual to assimilate: "… a multitude of glittering, interesting / Things and people attack one / Like a blizzard at every street-crossing / Yet remain unseen, unknown, and undeveloped …" (As We Know). And, recalling that Ashbery had entitled a previous long poem "Fragment," we can discern another facet of the joke: that "Litany," however ungraspable, is but a subatomic particle compared to the babel-like totality of all the voices sounding in the world at the same time.

Appropriately, a humorous anecdote about the absurdity of failed communication concludes the poem's right-hand column:

But you are leaving:
Some months ago I got an offer
From Columbia Tape Club, Terre
Haute, Ind., where I could buy one
Tape and get another free. I accept-
Ed the deal, paid for one tape and
Chose a free one. But since I've been
Repeatedly billed for my free tape.
I've written them several times but
Can't straighten it out—would you
(As We Know)

The kind of tape mentioned here is the means by which a spoken communication can be recorded for posterity. Having sought a bargain in communication, the speaker has implicitly been denied it (consciously or unintentionally) by those who promised it, and he has been unable to "straighten out" the nuisance through another form of contact, a letter. When impefect modes of communication (and motives for it) are involved, something can easily go awry.

But the final note sounded by this voice is not one of annoyance; he asks "you" to help him break through the communication barrier. It is as though the poet confesses that he cannot quite manage the complexities of his experience and wants the reader to sort out the poem's tangled "messages" so that the writer himself will benefit from what he has written. Once again, though, Ashbery's refusal to be serious, his essentially comic spirit, comes to the fore: the "you" he mentions is not "leaving"; he has never been there in the first place! Ashbery is playfully spotlighting the illusion of direct communication between reader and writer. Lines of a poem may "pretend" to be one half of a conversation, but this "voice" is only some writing on a page. This is not to say that one cannot pose or solve problems through written correspondence, but how seriously is a reader likely to take a request in a published poem after all?

The comic dimension of Ashbery's poetry cannot usefully be placed in any convenient literary category. As in existentialist or absurdist literature and in black humor in general, Ashbery's personae are not in harmony with nature and society and lack a sense of internal coherence, but the sustained bleakness and near-despair that go along with these realizations in the former categories are largely absent from Ashbery's "rhythm of the series of repeated jumps" in which "mild effects are" frequently "the result." The exhaustion resulting from much of Beckett's writing is not evident even in such laboriously reflective Ashbery texts as "Clepsydra" and "Fragment," which are full of sprightly new beginnings after impasses. Elements of comedy of morals, manners, and ideas, and social and surreal comedy can be found in Ashbery's work, but no single category predominates, and the poet does not roll them into a spuriously unified whole, since there are antagonisms between these approaches. Even to speak of a comedy of deconstruction does not quite work, because at times Ashbery's humor has more to do with our direct awareness of extra-textual (phenomenal) collapses than metaphysical ones.

If we were to try to paste the above-mentioned labels on other comic modern writers like James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, W. H. Auden, and A. R. Ammons, we would probably face equally massive difficulties. And if we then attempted to place these figures, along with the subject of this essay, in a "community" of anomalous comic authors, we would find their points of contact with one another insufficient for substantial generalizations. Due to the complexity of their narrative forms and unconventional uses of "real" and surreal materials, it is extremely difficult to pinpoint philosophical attitudes in the humor of Joyce and Borges, though many have tried. Auden's comic detachment from human folly, as Justin Replogle has suggested,12 is somehow permitted in the later work by the poet's belief in Christian redemption, a notion only to be parodied in Ashbery. As for Ammons, his Emersonian leanings tend to give the description of nature a much less ironic "status" than Ashbery does. Furthermore, merely including Ashbery among the "New York School" humorists obscures the areas that clearly differentiate him from his friends, Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch, both of whom have permitted various forms of sentimentality much stronger credibility in their work than does Ashbery in his.

In order to avoid a rhetorical dead end, we might "conclude" that, in a reading of Ashbery's poetry, "comedy" is the vague word used to characterize the mischievous, protean force that slips away from our serious pursuit of formulations for it.


1 Page references to my citations from Ashbery's work are included in my text. The following books are cited: Rivers and Mountains (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966); The Double Dream of Spring (New York: Dutton, 1970); Houseboat Days (New York: Viking, 1977); As We Know (New York: Viking, 1979); Shadow Train (New York: Viking, 1981).

2 David Shapiro, John Ashbery: An Introduction to the Poetry (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1979), p. 1.

3Ibid., p. 13.

4 "The Shield of a Greeting: the Function of Irony in John Ashbery's Poetry," in David Lehman, ed., Beyond Amazement: New Essays on John Ashbery (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1980), p. 126.

5 Sarah Blacher Cohen, ed., Comic Relief: Humor in Contemporary American Literature (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1978), p. 305.


7The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (New York: Knopf, 1977), p. 391.

8Ibid., p. 473.

9Ibid., p. 374.

10Ibid., p. 202.

11Ibid., p. 482.

12 Justin Replogle, Auden 's Poetry (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1969), p. 216.

John Ashbery with Paul Munn (interview date 1990)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3573

SOURCE: An interview in New Orleans Review, Vol. XVII, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 59-63.

[In the following interview, Ashbery discusses influences on his work, his creative process, and his poetic philosophy.]

[Munn]: Besides writing poetry, what are your current projects?

[Ashbery]: I was fortunate enough to get a Mac Arthur fellowship, which has relieved me of the necessity of earning a living for five years at least. But during this time it seems that have agreed to write a number of articles, essays, art reviews, and so on, all of which procrastinate about, and can't seem to do anything with the time I am procrastinating about these other things. Basically I have written more or less the same amount of poetry I normally would have if I had been working at a job. I'm trying to get out from under these other commitments, and when I do that I would like to try to write some different kinds of things. I wrote some plays years ago in the fifties which I never really did anything with, although I still like them. And I would like to go back and do something in that form. And also I would like to write some fiction, which I haven't really done, except for a novel I collaborated on with the poet James Schuyler, called A Nest of Ninnies, which was published—which I don't really consider to be a novel. It was really a kind of game we played to amuse ourselves, never expecting when we began it at a very young age, both of us, that anyone would ever publish it. I'd like to try to write some fiction with the idea of publishing it rather than from the standpoint of its never seeing the light of day—which was the understanding I wrote the other one out of.

I've never enjoyed writing art criticism. For a long time it was the only way I seemed to be able to make a living, especially when I was living in France for ten years. There I wrote for the International Herald Tribune for five years. And although this wasn't enough to live on—they only gave $15 an article when I began working for them; it was up to $30 by the time I left five years later, so I actually got a 100% raise somewhere along the line—nevertheless, this enabled me to write other things about art and I was able to subsist that way. But I have always been a somewhat reluctant art critic. And now I would like to think that I'm not going to write any more art criticism. To celebrate this I have completed a book of my art writing. As long as I was in the business of writing it, I didn't want to publish it, because I was afraid some reviewer would come along and attack it and I would lose my job. But I no longer have this to worry about.

I'm interested in your selection process for the Selected Poems? How did you decide what to include and exclude? Did others take part in determining what finally went into your Selected Poems?

No, I selected them myself. I've had friends and other people—who knew my work—not be happy with the selection because of things I've left out. No one has yet complained about anything I have included, but I suppose there are complaints on that side too. But there were some poems that I realized were fairly well known, so far as any are, which I never really liked and therefore didn't include. There were others which I did like but which seemed somewhat repetitive of other poems which I like slightly better. I didn't intend this to be a sort of codex or ultimate choice, since my other books are in print, and I had no intention of disavowing any of the ones that are not included in the book.

If you were to put together a collected works, are there any poems that you would exclude? I'm thinking of the later W. H. Auden, who rethought his career. Would you rethink yours or throw out some poems or re-edit?

I think this is about as much of a collected poems as I'll ever do, and so, in a sense, I've already done or not done whatever that is. And I don't think I've been too harsh on my early work, one reason being that I felt that Auden did a kind of disastrous number on himself, leaving out many of his most cherished poems. This seems to be a congenital affliction of writers who reach a certain age. Henry James also kind of massacred or re-did some of his early works which were better in the original version. So I'm leery of doing this. I don't think, I hope, at any rate, that I wasn't too harsh on early works, which I can see flaws in but which nevertheless seem to have a kind of redeeming freshness, which maybe later works, which are in some ways better, wouldn't have. It's kind of a narrow line you have to follow in doing something like that, I guess.

So you don 't feel a strong self-censoring or self-editing impulse, then, as you look back at the earlier work?

Well, much of it had already happened before the books were published. It takes a long time for a book of poetry to come out. Sometimes the poems in it are five years old or more when a book finally appears, so you've had ample time for self criticism or winnowing out. I certainly have written a lot more than I have actually published.

Critics have seen sources or analogues for your poetry in a considerable range of poets, and even composers and painters: Rimbaud, Whitman, Wallace Stevens, the current Language poets, John Cage, and Jackson Pollock are just a few. You have expressed an early admiration for Auden and Elizabeth Bishop. How important do you feel it is for readers such as us to be familiar with these earlier poets in order to get at your work?

I would hope not at all. Because even though I've been influenced by many different poets and artists and things not even related to the arts, I would not like to feel that a knowledge of any source material is necessary or even desirable before reading my work; I think that's true of any writer that one admires. It's interesting afterwards if you wish to go back and see where these things originated, but I hope at any rate that it's not a condition of reading my work.

Do you have any tips if there were someone in the audience who was just beginning to read your work? Is there any advice you might give them to facilitate their way into your work?

Well, much has always been made about how difficult my poetry is. I never thought of this until it was first pointed out to me. It has been many times since. This has become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, I think. This reputation of being difficult I think discourages people from looking at my work. I found in a number of cases that people who somehow have never heard of me and who don't even read poetry and happened on it have read it with enjoyment and not found it puzzling or enigmatic. I'm thinking particularly of a handyman who occasionally worked for me who heard indirectly that I was a writer and went to the library and found some of my books. Then he began collecting them, even insisting on first editions, even though I don't think he ever [had] read anything before, not any book. I could see that he was really very fervently involved in these poems. That doesn't happen, everyday, of course, but I think it can happen, and perhaps one suggestion would be to pretend that you haven't heard that it's very difficult, to read it and see what happens. And also not to worry if you don't understand it. It doesn't make that much difference. There are other things in life. And not to look for a structure or a framework underneath it. But as they say, go with the flow, which I hope is there.

From your example, you almost suggest that those of us who have sought a structure and applied the traditional ways of looking at poetry might actually be handicapped a little bit, and this other person you were talking about had an advantage by coming to it without preconceptions about how he should read.

That could be. He was perhaps an extreme example, but other people more literate than he have occasionally come up to me and said, "People are always saying your work is so difficult, but I think it means something to me." I've never quite understood about understanding anyway or about the meaning of poetry. Eliot, I believe, said that you don't have to understand poetry to enjoy it, and I think that's true. And I think the converse might be true as well. In fact, it's necessary not to understand it in order to enjoy it. I don't get much pleasure out of poems that offer no resilience or crunch, where you can tell almost from scanning the poem exactly what the message is, something like "The Star Spangled Banner," even though that has a few obscurities in it. In fact, I find that much socalled clear poetry is full of murkinesses that I seem to be the only one to pick up on.

Maybe this next question will lead into the murkiness in what's often thought to be more clear poems. Some of your poems might be characterized and have been characterized as anti-voice poems. By that I mean that your poems resist being thought of as speech originating from a presumed personality, attitude, or clear situation. I can think of a few poems of yours where you seem to have a poetic speaker who is a relatively consistent "I" and is also grounded in a time and place. "The Instruction Manual" is one. "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" may be another. "Evening in the Country" and "Ode to Bill" also seem to have that sense of the present speaking voice, relatively coherent. In any of these poems, were you aware—and this is a psychological question which may not help us with these poems—of the Wordsworthian, Yeatsian, and maybe Frank O'Hara background—the personality poet? Were you consciously playing off that in these sorts of poems?

I don't think I was even in those examples that you just cited. I've never really had much of an idea of who I am, and I feel that Rimbaud put it very well when he said, "Je est un autre": "I is an other," meaning using " I" in the third person as someone who's not speaking that statement. I am constantly using different voices without being aware of it, of different people who seem to be talking in these poems without bothering to indicate to the reader where one stops and another one starts up again because I'm interested in a kind of polyphonic quality that attracts me in music. I seem to be somewhat notorious for what I have come to think of as the floating pronoun. I coined this from my own practice. I didn't mean it to be that way. But it often seems to be enough to know that "you" is someone that the speaker is addressing, that "he" or "she" is someone who is neither of these two people, that "we" could be a number of people, including the speaker of the poem, the person he may be talking to, and all possible readers as well. For me this is actually enough. And it seems to be an attempt, possibly a misguided one, at a kind of more realistic approach toward what one learns, what one sees, hears, and what happens, what one's mind does during the course of a day, something like that. I'm interested in the movement of the mind, how it goes from one place to the other. The places themselves don't matter that much; it's the movement that does.

I have one more question before we turn to reading and talking about "At North Farm," You have written in a considerable variety of forms, some of which seem to be your own nonce forms or free verse, others of which are traditional or derived from traditional forms—quatrains, couplets, prose poems, and sestinas, for example. You have spoken yourself of "the tyranny of the line" ["The Experience of Experience: A Conversation with John Ashbery, " with A. Poulin, Jr., Michigan Quarterly Review 20 (1981): 254]. One way of looking at your work might be to see it as a continual struggle with or response to form. Please excuse the baldness of this question: Why write a sestina?

Well, that's a very complicated form which I first discovered in Auden and in Elizabeth Bishop, although many poets, particularly twentieth-century ones, have used the form. And that's a kind of a special case, really. I often use this as an assignment for students because the complexity of the form involves making so many conscious decisions that one's unconscious is kind of left free to go ahead and proceed with the poem, which is as it should be. Eliot said something like meaning in poetry is like the piece of meat that the burglar throws to the watchdog so that he can get at the treasure or whatever he's looking for. Frequently, it has a kind of therapeutic effect on students. When they get all done and realize that they have fitted all the pieces into place and stand back, they suddenly realize that they have written a poem while they thought that they were just solving a puzzle. There are not too many forms that I find useful for that kind of exercise. The canzone, which is actually a more constrained version of the sestina, has sometimes produced interesting work in class and the villanelle, which I have assigned. I have never actually been able to write a successful one myself, but I've had students who have done so. But when you get into the sonnet and things like that, these are forms that are really too loose to have this liberating effect that I'm looking for, especially in teaching. I don't use these forms such as the sestina very much for myself anymore. I probably did when I was younger, when I was finding it more difficult to write and used them as a kind of exercise to get going.

[At this point, by agreement, he read the first poem in his A Wave, "At North Farm."]

     At North Farm

Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents, through narrow passes.
But will he know where to find you,
Recognize you when he sees you,
Give you the thing he has for you?

Hardly anything grows here,
Yet the granaries are bursting with meal,
The sacks of meal piled to the rafters.
The streams run with sweetness, fattening fish;
Birds darken the sky. Is it enough
That the dish of milk is set out at night,
That we think of him sometimes,
Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings?

I'll tell you a little bit about how I happened to write the poem, although I would caution you against thinking that this is the key to the poem, because it doesn't have any key, like all poetry. Frequently, I find that questions in a situation such as this are actually someone asking for the recipe, and the recipe is always in my head. I can't give it to anybody, just like one's grandmother. The title, "At North Farm," although it could [have] come from anywhere, actually was suggested by the Finnish epic folk poem the Kalevala, which you may know from some of Sibelius's tone poems. They were based on a fascinating body of folklore, copied down in the nineteenth century but actually much older. North Farm in the epic is a place near hell but not in it, and it's always referred to with the epithet "gloomy and prosperous North Farm." And as I recall there are always a lot of beautiful serving girls there, whom the hero, Lemminkainen, is very attracted to; he is always dropping in at North Farm to see what's cooking. So the "gloomy and prosperous," I think, gives you a little note to the stasis in the second part of the poem. Although nothing grows there—it's not fertile—nevertheless it's full of the evidence of fertility, such as these sacks of meal, fish in the streams, and so on.

The first part of the poem, I think, seems to me to come from some cinematic memory, maybe Lawrence of Arabia, somebody galloping across a desert stream. And "will he know where": this person is heading in your direction, but there's some doubt as to whether you are actually going to meet up and whether you will receive the thing that he has for you. It might also have been a kind of memory of that legend that's mentioned in the beginning of "Appointment in Samarra," by John O'Hara, where the man says he has to go to Samarra to avoid death, and death comes and says, "I have an appointment with him there." At any rate it's something ominous, I think, and it reflects a relationship that I had at the time that I wrote it with a person whom I felt to be sort of fascinating but somewhat alarming at the same time. There are a lot of people like that one encounters in the course of one's life—not too many perhaps. I think the idea is that somebody, maybe one of these maids-in-waiting, is waiting back there at the farm where nothing ever happens, where it's fertile but somehow sterile, waiting for this kind of electrifying arrival of a messenger of something, we don't know quite of what. The dish of milk is traditional in fairy tales, something you set out at night to pacify the elves so they won't spoil your crops. It's an image I also use in another poem called "Hop O'My Thumb." A lot of my imagery comes from fairy tales and things I read when I was young, which impressed me more than much of what I've read since. The line in the other poem is "Nocturnal friendliness of the plate of milk left for the fairies / Who otherwise might be less well disposed."

I wrote this poem with great ease. And I enjoyed writing it a lot. I enjoyed the feeling. I was somehow able to use clichés, like "at incredible speed," "birds darken the sky," "travelling day and night," that sort of thing, that kind of very colloquial, not quite clichéd speech which I found at that moment very appealing. I frequently find colloquial, overheard speech to have a kind of beauty that I'd like to steal and put in my poetry. This was one case where I felt that I had been able to do that. At the end, this ambiguous person seems to be the thing that everything hinges on—"That we think of him sometimes"—which is immediately contradicted by "Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings," again a further feeling of contradiction. So it's left up in the air whether the person is going to arrive and what will happen when he does; and that's very often the case.

It sounds as though I'm a victim of too much reading when I'm hearing Yeats and Keats all through the second movement. I'm thinking particularly of Keats' "high-piled books, in charactery, / [which] Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain, " and the closing stanza of "To Autumn," which has that sublime stasis, that end of the season fruition. And maybe even Yeatshighpiled "The young / In one another's arms, birds in the trees /—Those dying generations—at their song, / The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas "—that sense of richness and the sensuous life, which is there, but that's certainly my head.

That might well be. We all have read these poems. They are all part of our subconscious, if not our conscious. I'm frequently finding that I'm rewriting something that I read thirty years ago and had completely forgotten. Perhaps indeed the Yeats line was in the back of my mind. I was also thinking of the Welsh epic poem the Mabinogion, where there's a scene [in which] I think a lot of soldiers are disguised as sacks of meal as in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and the unfortunate warrior comes and accosts this man surrounded by sacks of meal. He is about to put him to the sword and the man says, "There is in this sack another type of meal," and then at that point, as I recall it, the armed men all jump out of the flour sacks. But even though this is material that I used, I don't know that it proves anything. It doesn't make the poem any better or worse. That's why I don't have footnotes or explanations as to where all these things came from. I don't think it matters.

Steven Meyer (review date 1995)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6387

SOURCE: "Ashbery: Poet for All Seasons," in Raritan, Vol. XV, No. 2, Fall, 1995, pp. 144-61.

[In the following review, Meyer provides a laudatory assessment of Hotel Lautréamont and And the Stars Were Shining.]

For upwards of two decades now, since the acclaim that greeted his 1975 collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, John Ashbery has been the United States' preeminent poet, with books selling in the tens of thousands, both at home and abroad. In a recent issue of the British journal PN Review, two dozen poets and critics set out to "appraise the mark this American writer" has made and continues to make in Britain—a mark, we are told, that differs appreciably from his influence in the United States. Among the sources of Ashbery's widespread popularity is a feature of his work that he does not share with other contemporary writers and which might therefore account for some of his individual appeal. This is a quite exceptional openness to the influence of earlier writers, especially the first two generations of this century's English-speaking poets. It is this continuity with the poets largely responsible for making modern poetry consequential for readers today that makes Ashbery so recognizably a poet of consequence himself.

Along with his receptivity to the work of other poets, Ashbery exhibits an equal willingness to draw on the unexpected turns of demotic speech, with which most readers are no doubt more familiar than they are with the tropes of poetry. In poem after poem he demonstrates that everyday usage contains as much grist for poetry as poetry itself does. In adapting the language he finds around him, whether the language of poets or of personal and social life, Ashbery applies a technique that one finds described exactly, if somewhat outrageously, by Isidore Ducasse, the nineteenth-century French writer who called himself the Comte de Lautréamont. "Plagiarism is necessary," Ducasse wrote: "it is implied in the idea of progress. It clasps an author's sentence tight, uses his expressions, eliminates a false idea, replaces it with the right idea." Few writers have been as assiduous, or as unembarrassed, in their pursuit of the bon mot as Ashbery, who would have had to look no further than Auden and Stevens and Eliot to find exemplary plagiarists.

Indeed, the title of Ashbery's 1992 collection, Hotel Lautréamont—in deliberate contrast with Rimbaud's "Splendide-Hotel," "erected," as Rimbaud has it, in the splendid isolation "of ice and of polar night"—presents a trope of a man as a hotel where other people stay for a short while and then move on. This permeability of borders, and boarders, is central to Ashbery and his sense of "himself." In a crucial statement, dating from 1976, he observed that "what moves me is the irregular form—the flawed words and stubborn sounds, as Stevens said, that affect us whenever we try to say something that is important to us." It is this sense of a necessary incompleteness in poetry that he insists on, for such "irregular form" is what enables the poetry to survive the circumstances of its own composition—and so make room both for the reader and for the later poet, who is always first a reader.

Perhaps one imagined that Eliot's Four Quartets was a paragon of completeness; so Ashbery in Hotel Lautréamont offers us an additional "Quartet." Similarly, to complement "Ash Wednesday" we are presented with "Just Wednesday." (Ashbery, as he often does, plays on his name here, modestly removing it from Eliot's great poem. Now, just how modest is this?) Donne's "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" is transformed into "A Mourning Forbidding Valediction," in which the nine quatrains of the original poem, odd and even lines rhyming, are replaced by seven eight-line stanzas, each with the rhyme scheme abcd cbad. This magnificent poem alone is worth the purchase of the volume. And what of Stevens, whom Ashbery has called his favorite poet? The 1942 "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction," surely as great a poem as has been written in this century, consists of three parts: "It Must Be Abstract," "It Must Change," "It Must Give Pleasure." Ashbery, refusing to be silenced by these peremptory judgments, contributes his own obiter dictum: "It Must Be Sophisticated," "O what book shall I read now?" he wonders near the end of this truly wonderful poem: "for they are all of them new, and used, / when I write my name on the flyleaf."

Although he never lets one forget that one is reading poetry, not overhearing conversation, Ashbery certainly doesn't want his readers to feel that the concerns which engage him are exclusively literary and merely a matter of reading and responding to books "new, and used." In the same way, he wants his poems to speak to and for as broad a spectrum of his contemporaries as possible. Such ambitions have a precise genealogy. English-language poetry of the last two hundred years—ever since Wordsworth's insistence on using "the real language of men" rather than "the arbitrary and capricious habits of expression … frequently substituted for it by Poets"—turns on an ongoing tension between aristocratic and democratic conceptions of the reading public. Is the poetry written for the privileged few or the unexceptional many? Pound and Yeats are perhaps the most powerful modern proponents of a poetic aristocracy, which may account for Ashbery's relative lack of interest in them.

Wordsworth, in calling the volume he coauthored with Coleridge Lyrical Ballads, was responding to the late eighteenth-century revival of interest in English and Scottish ballads, a tradition of poetry that predated the Renaissance establishment of a "heightened" English and which seemed to speak for society as a whole in a way that poetry since the Renaissance had not. "Research has shown," the title poem of Hotel Lautréamont begins, in one of Ashbery's preferred manners, that of the academic spinner of clichés, "that ballads were produced by all of society / working as a team. They didn't just happen. There was no guesswork. / The people, then, knew what they wanted and how to get it. / We see the results in works as diverse as 'Windsor Forest' and 'The Wife of Usher's Well.'" The latter poem is a traditional Scottish ballad, whereas the former, an early production of Alexander Pope's, is composed in his trademark rhymed couplets. As such, it hardly qualifies as a ballad; yet, like "The Wife of Usher's Well," it invites precious little guesswork, and the forest world it portrays is the sort of "golden" world, "harmoniously confused: / Where Order in Variety we see, / And where, tho' all things differ, all agree," that can only be "produced by all of society / working as a team."

"Hotel Lautréamont" is not itself written in traditional ballad stanzas—it is rather a pantoum, an elaborate verse form of Malay origin that was introduced into French early in the nineteenth century and later adapted to English—but it testifies to the increasing importance the ballad has acquired in Ashbery's poetry. The long poem, "Fantasia on 'The Nut-Brown Maid,'" for instance, which appeared in the 1977 collection Houseboat Days, is modeled on the ballad alluded to in the title; and in the 1987 April Galleons, the poem "Forgotten Song" begins with variants of lines from several ballads and includes a passage from a third as well. In Hotel Lautréamont, besides the title poem, Ashbery has included a magical and quite-impossible-to-forget song. "The Youth's Magic Horn." Like so much of Ashbery's work of the last decade—after an almost-fatal spinal infection he experienced in 1982—this poem is a "dump" or lament at approaching death. It is divided into two sections of six quatrains each, with the much shorter second and fourth lines of each quatrain repeated throughout each section as a refrain. "First in dreams," the second section begins, " I questioned the casing of the gears the enigma presented / You're a pain in the ass my beloved/ The twa corbies belched and were gone, song veiled sky that day / I have to stop in one mile." The "twa corbies" are two ravens that, in the Scottish ballad of that name, are overheard discussing the meal they are about to make of "a new-slain knight."

It is not possible in so brief an excerpt to reproduce the beauty that emerges out of this medley of grating language and excruciating pain, since it depends on the song's cumulative effect, but the juxtaposition of dream and ballad in these lines does suggest the significance of Ashbery's concern with ballad form. The same juxtaposition is to be found in W.H. Auden's introduction to Ashbery's first book, Some Trees, which Auden selected as the 1956 winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets. Auden suggests that any poet "working with the subjective life"—particularly poets who, like Ashbery, are "concerned with the discovery that in childhood largely, in dreams and daydreams entirely, the imaginative life of the human individual stubbornly continues to live by the old magical notions"—will be "tempted to manufacture calculated oddities, as if the subjectively sacred were necessarily and on all occasions odd." Here Auden is warning Ashbery against another "youth" with a "magic horn" whose influence may readily be discerned in such poems in Some Trees as the aptly-named "Popular Songs." This poet is the younger Auden.

Whenever Ashbery, who wrote an undergraduate honors thesis on Auden, finds himself addressing the importance the older poet had for him, he always makes a point of insisting that it was the early Auden who played the decisive role, the so-called "English" Auden of the 1930s—author, among many other works, of such ballads as "O what is that sound" and "As I walked out one evening." It is not ballads like these, however, that Auden is warning Ashbery against. Rather it is the poet of the 1932 miscellany, The Orators, who is to be watched out for; and in an interview with the Paris Review in the early 1980s, Ashbery made it quite clear that the message had been received. After noting that Auden "was of two minds about my own work," he added: "You'll remember, though, that he once said in later life that one of his early works, 'The Orators,' must have been written by a madman." It was not the flamboyant discontinuities of the work, the "calculated oddities," that demonstrated the writer's madness, but the fact that in this remarkable anthology of verse and prose forms the twenty-four-year-old Auden had tried to combine the dreamlike rhetoric of "an inner mythological life" with the public formats of the ode and the ballad, or, as he titled two sections of the work, the "journal of an airman" with an "address for a prize-day."

"The problem for the modern poet, as for everyone else today," Auden suggested in 1938, shortly before he left Europe for America, "is how to find or form a genuine community." As Ashbery puts it in "Hotel Lautréamont": "It remains for us to come to terms with our commonality." The traditional ballad represents for Ashbery, as it did for Auden, the poetry of "a community united in sympathy." The central task for the modern poet, then, is to try to create works that function the way ballads do, only for a community in which the shared experience is the feeling, as Ashbery described it in 1972, of everything "slipping away from me as I'm trying to talk about it." "A sense of permanent unraveling," he has also called it. One consequence of the resulting "simultaneity of conflicting states of being" is that for the poet, attentive above all to the play of language about him, the composition of modern life takes the form of an indefinitely extended "mix" of discourses: high, low, middle, whatever.

In the summer of 1955, shortly after being notified of his selection by Auden for the Yale Series, Ashbery left New York, where he had been living since his graduation from Harvard in 1949, to spend a year in France on a Fulbright. Between 1955 and late 1965 he lived continuously in France except for the 1957-58 school year which he spent back in New York as a graduate student in French literature at N.Y.U. If, as Ashbery has suggested, French writing played a relatively small role in his "experimenting with language" during these years, this was because the major role was performed by another American who half a century earlier had made Paris her home: Gertrude Stein. Thus he observes of novelist and former Paris Match columnist Pierre Martory—whose first collection of poetry, The Landscape Is Behind The Door, translated and introduced by Ashbery, was published last year—that "his take on [things French] has something distinctly and irreverently American about it." When they met, Martory, with whom Ashbery lived during much of the decade, "was reading Emily Dickinson, Eliot and Gertrude Stein."

In a 1957 review of Stein's posthumously published Stanzas in Meditation, Ashbery described the poetry he would come to write. Only he did so by describing Stein's work:

Like people, Miss Stein's lines are comforting or annoying or brilliant or tedious. Like people, they sometimes make no sense and sometimes make perfect sense or they stop short in the middle of a sentence and wander away, leaving us alone for awhile in the physical world, that collection of thoughts, flowers, weather, and proper names. And, just as with people, there is no real escape from them…. Sometimes the story has the logic of a dream… while at other times it becomes startlingly clear for a moment, as though a change in the wind had suddenly enabled us to hear a conversation that was taking place some distance away…. In its profound originality, its original profundity, this poem that is always threatening to become a novel reminds us of the late novels of James… which seem to strain with a superhuman force toward "the condition of music."

There is no better, no more concise, description of Ashbery's subsequent poetry—despite the tremendous stylistic differences that one encounters in the thirty years of writing between his second book, The Tennis Court Oath, and Hotel Lautréamont. Ashbery includes here all the figures that he will use again and again in describing his own work: the everyday discontinuities of meaning and sentence structure, the dream-logic, the snatches of conversation, the music. These are all extrapoetic experiences that seem particularly suited to describing what he called in 1972 "the movement of experiencing" or "the experience of experience," and it was precisely this general sense of experience that he suggested fifteen years earlier was Stein's primary concern in Stanzas in Meditation. "It is usually not events which interest Miss Stein, rather it is their 'way of happening,' and the story of Stanzas in Meditation is a general, all-purpose model which each reader can adapt to fit his own set of particulars." Stein's work offered Ashbery a way of accommodating Auden's warning about confusing private dream and public ballad. Ashbery's poetry would henceforth be "about the privacy of everyone," the way experience feels to anyone.

The poems collected in The Tennis Court Oath, which like Hotel Lautréamont is dedicated to Martory, represent Ashbery's first attempts to think Stein through on his own terms, that is, in his own terms. Indeed, it is the nature of his terminology that most clearly distinguishes Ashbery from Stein. Whereas Stein, at least in Stanzas in Meditation, confined herself to "colorless connecting words such as 'where,' 'which,' 'these,' 'of,' 'not,' 'have,' 'about,' and so on" ("though now and then Miss Stein throws in an orange, a lilac, or an Albert to remind us that it really is the world, our world, that she is talking about"), Ashbery includes everything—every word and sequence of words—he can find. If Stein entertains the same range of events in her work, nonetheless she insists on using her own language: making over the received words, and in the process making the particular events as hard to discern as possible. What defines Ashbery's language as his own, by contrast, is its openness to the language of others. This is his signature. The poems are "his" because the lines are everybody's.

"Back from his breakfast, thirty-five years ago, / he stumbles, finds in the sun a nod that's new." So begins the exquisite "And Socializing"—and it is back to this era of "future memories," with its potent combination of party-going and poetry-writing, that Ashbery returns again and again in Hotel Lautréamont. The American original for this blending of the social and the poetic is, of course, the author of "Song of Myself," and on several occasions in the 1992 collection Ashbery takes the work of Whitman as his starting-point. He even stages an encounter, in "A Driftwood Altar," with the writer who so memorably identified himself as "a trail of drift and debris": "Of all those who came near him at this stage, only / a few can describe him with any certainty: a drifter / was the consensus, polite with old people, indifferent to children, extremely interested in young adults, / but so far, why remember him? And few did, / that much is certain. I caught up with him / on a back porch in Culver City, exchanged the requisite nod, / shirt biting the neck…" Whitman, it will be recalled, concluded his epoch-defining "Song" by leaving everything up in the air: "Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, / Missing me one place search another, / I stop somewhere waiting for you."

Ashbery's references to past poetry are frequent, but they are rarely obscure. Unlike Eliot or Pound, he is not interested in impressing the reader with a vast range of esoteric knowledge. On the contrary, it is his range of common usage, the way he joins idioms that too often appear mutually exclusive, which is so impressive. He prefers to use language he can expect the reader to be relatively familiar with, so that the transformations worked on it will be recognizable. Hence the high proportion of titles and first lines in his literary allusions. The two most familiar titles in Whitman's oeuvre, for instance—Leaves of Grass, the name of the collected poems, and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," the elegy for Lincoln—are all that a reader needs in order to grasp what Ashbery is after when, in "Notes From the Air," reference is made to "some stranger's casual words" that concern "the square of barren grass that adjoins your doorstep." Similarly, in the superb "Wild Boys of the Road," one passes directly from "the tin / posy in the doorjamb," wonderfully characterized as being "as unconcerned as if this were a hundred and fifty years ago"—as if Whitman's "poesy" had yet to be written—to the poem's final sentence which, seventy-five words long, begins "The leaves are too little at the top" and ends on the sobering note of "stone plinths with fringe of grass." The enumerative and almost infinitely expandable sentence quite literally frames the "stone plinths"—the gravestones of those Ashbery is elegizing, including himself—with perhaps the most resonant phrase in American literature: "leaves… of grass."

In speaking of the long prose poems gathered in the 1972 Three Poems, Ashbery has observed that " I would be able to write just a couple of pages at a time. I would be left with an overwhelming anxiety, not knowing whether I was ever going to be able to finish this thing or what on earth I was going to put in it." If Ashbery's poetry avoids, in Richard Howard's words, "the invoked anxiety of a closed form," there still remains the need to come up with an ending for the "open" work. Moreover, as Ashbery suggests, how to end is only half the problem; the other half is the perplexing business of just "how to continue"—which, as it happens, is the title of the final poem in Hotel Lautréamont.

"Oh there once was a woman / and she kept a shop / selling trinkets to tourists / not far from a dock / who came to see what life could be / far back on the island." So unfolds the first of the five stanzas of this song, with its parties and friends and lovers, "a marvel of poetry / and irony." The simplicity of the language, the generalized model it presents, the explicit concern with unity as well as with the contradictions of "our commonality," all these mark the poem as a contemporary ballad. As such, it is a fitting companion piece to a work like Elizabeth Bishop's "The Burglar of Babylon." Written in traditional ballad stanzas, Bishop's poem takes as its subject "the death of a Brazilian bandit in which emotionally charged ellipses build up to a tragic grandeur"—as Ashbery has put it—beginning and ending with the lines, "On the fair green hills of Rio / There grows a fearful stain: / The poor who come to Rio / And can't go home again." In the modern world the country has become part of the city, and with it has come a pressing need for something resembling the traditional ballad.

Ashbery, like Bishop, seeks to reintroduce us in his "general, all-purpose" poem to this new world in which we are all living and dying—poets and party-goers as well as the poor in the "fair green hills"—and hence to reintroduce us to one another. That is all. There is no particular message. But the poetry does have something to tell us, all the same. By its own example, it demonstrates "how to continue" much as "The Instruction Manual," in Some Trees, had done. ("As is my way, I begin to dream, resting my elbows on the desk and leaning out of the window a little, / Of dim Guadalajara! City of rose-colored flowers! / City I wanted most to see, and most did not see, in Mexico!") This is a poetry that not only instructs us to continue but shows how we may do so, even when it seems that "we are in the departure / mode": how to continue, that is, as inhabitants of what Ashbery, in a phrase entered twice in this Hotel's register, calls "our example, earth."

In his most recent collection, published last winter, Ashbery seems to have removed his attention from the earth to the stars—beginning with the title, And the Stars Were Shining. Does this mean that he has gone transcendental? I have to confess that when I first read these poems I thought that the poet, after more than forty years of gentle rigor, was finally showing signs of fatigue. The poems really did seem mechanical, as they have so often been accused of being: automatic, insubstantial, forced. I was especially confused by the twenty-four-page title poem, which consists of thirteen sections of varying lengths. These are sufficiently various that I wondered what difference it would make if they were treated as separate poems and given individual titles instead of being numbered—hence instead of being parts of the poem, "And the Stars Were Shining," merely parts of the book And the Stars Were Shining.

I mention this initial response because I suspect that it is the sort of experience which readers who distrust—and more, dislike—Ashbery's writing typically have. Needless to say, the first impression was mistaken. The writing is exactly the kind that one should, by now, have come to expect from this poet: whatever's not expected. The problem is that having learned to expect the unexpected doesn't necessarily make it any easier to accept. In the latest poems, it is the halfhearted, almost blasé, gestures that Ashbery seems intent on making which prove so deceptive, the recycled imagery of a "middle" state between life and death (stars, sea, island, dream, night). Instead of Hotel Lautréamont's fierce meditations on death—mixing acceptance and disbelief, indelicacy and despair—these poems seem merely to offer token resistance. No "purgatory of words," such as one finds in the 1991 book-length poem Flow Chart, just a couple of shining stars resting on their laurels, drinking beers and, as one is informed late in the new collection, "shooting the breeze with night and her swift promontories."

Yet "token resistance" is Ashbery's own phrase, the title of the opening poem. In his relaxed way, he's pursuing what animates the ordinary, not its elevation—in effect, bringing the stars down to earth. In a recent interview he thus observed, concerning the collection's title (which directly translates E lucevan le Stella, the aria that Cavaradossi, the painter and lover of Tosca in Puccini's opera Tosca, sings before his execution), that "one day" he had "thought of the title in Italian and thought of it being translated into English and it was kind of funny in English … a sort of unnecessary bit of information. The fact that they were shining." In Ashbery's new poetry, as in all successful poetry, the poet concentrates on what the mind hungry for information, especially information about which it can be certain, supposes to be unnecessary bits of info. The "present, with its noodle parlors / and token resistance" is still life; and to deny, or resist, this embarrassing fact is to place oneself above life, which is what Ashbery—stars and all—won't do, if he has any say in the matter.

"So must one descend from the checkered heights / that are our friends," Ashbery's poem of "token resistance" concludes: "needlessly / rehearsing what we will say / as a common light bathes us, / / a common fiction reverberates as we pass / to the celebration. Originally / we weren't going to leave home. But made bold / somehow by the rain we put our best foot forward. / / Now it's years after that. It / isn't possible to be young anymore. / Yet the tree treats me like a brute friend; / my own shoes have scarred the walk I've taken." It's not just Ashbery's shoes that have scarred this particular walk, however. "There was a time," Wordsworth's immortal Ode begins, "when meadow, grove, and stream, / The earth, and every common sight / To me did seem / Apparelled in celestial light… The Youth, who daily farther from the East / Must travel, still is Nature's Priest, / And by the vision splendid / Is on his way attended; / At length the Man perceives it die away, / And fade into the light of common day." Against Wordsworth's opposition of "common" and "celestial" Ashbery offers his token (that is to say, exemplary) resistance—collapsing the distinction in a "common light" that still leaves room for Wordsworth's "common fiction" of uncommon splendor.

Originally we weren 't going to leave home. But made bold somehow by the rain we put our best foot forward. Now it's years after that. It isn 't possible to be young anymore. This is Wordsworth's and Ashbery's common predicament. Where they part company is in their responses, as witnessed in the divergent perceptions of a "single" tree. First, Wordsworth: "But there's a Tree, of many one, / A single Field which I have looked upon, / Both of them speak of something that is gone." Then Ashbery, two hundred years later: "Yet the tree treats me like a brute friend." With his brutal honesty, Ashbery obliges one to attend to the present moment instead of the Wordsworthian life at a remove. "Our life is but a sleep and a forgetting," Wordsworth sometimes imagines. And Ashbery? "It was as if all of it had never happened, / my shoelaces were untied, and—am I forgetting anything?" Bringing to a close both And the Stars Were Shining and "And the Stars Were Shining," these lines testify to Ashbery's extraordinarily surefooted appropriation of Wordsworth in the volume, for it is as if Wordsworth were speaking, yet the words come out Ashbery's.

Ashbery grew up on a farm outside Rochester—spending many weekends in town, where his grandfather was chairman of the University of Rochester physics department—and he has said that "the one thing I wanted to do was get the hell out of where I was and go to a city, preferably New York, and that's what I ended up doing." In a nostalgic frame of mind he muses not on "the growing Boy," as Wordsworth did or like the more conventionally Romantic Martory, but on his years as a "young adult." The poet's state of mind isn't exactly nostalgic, however, because it doesn't face in just one direction. The young adult he remembers is the young adult whom, as a child, he imagined he would become. This complex, Janus-faced temporality is probably the most distinctive feature of Ashbery's poetry, much more so than the often-commented-upon play with personal pronouns. At different points in his career the play of time (in the sense that one speaks of the play of light) has itself taken distinctive forms, as it does again in And the Stars Were Shining.

Ashbery's relation with Martory plays an exemplary role here. Martory has said that when they lived together he showed Ashbery his poems "without putting any pressure on him, and he didn't seem to pay any attention…. He did do that later, much later… [and] seems to have discovered suddenly that I am a poet." This new attention to Martory's poetry is one aspect of the renewed attention that, in the writing of the last decade, Ashbery has directed toward the period of his youth. This extended period may be characterized as a time of schooling, and further divided into three parts: first, the years that Ashbery's grandfather, as he has put it, "took over my education"; second, his formal training at Deerfield Academy, Harvard, and Columbia; third, the self-reeducation that occurred during the years in Paris.

It is in his schooling, in fact, that Ashbery's differences with Wordsworth can most clearly be observed. For whether one takes the Ode as one's touchstone, with Nature understood as "that immortal sea / Which brought us hither," or earlier poems in which Wordsworth describes "the growth of mental power" as a consequence of his schooling in a difficult and glorious Nature, he always insists that it is to Nature that one owes one's imaginative capabilities and hence capacity for heightened ("poetic") consciousness. Wordsworth's Nature—embodied if not fully realized in a countryside that exists beyond the reach of an unsympathetic and unsympathetically portrayed city—is precisely where Ashbery feels least at home. Concerning his own country home, a Victorian mansion he has been restoring for the past fifteen years to resemble his grandfather's house in Rochester, he has said: " I kind of like the fact that I have a house in upstate New York and I have the advantage of no longer being a child and also of being able to get to New York City whenever I want and very easily."

In this way Ashbery is able, even outside his poetry, to resolve the conflict he experienced so strongly as a child between country and city, a divide that Wordsworth wished, if anything, to widen. As I suggested earlier, the decisive collapse of this distinction, with country moving in on the city and city moving out into the countryside, serves as a defining characteristic of modern life and modern poetry. The sun now rises, as Ashbery observed two decades ago, in a suburbia that stretches beyond the horizon, "the morning holocaust become one vast furnace." Still, the true site of exile for Ashbery—and in this he stands opposed to all forms of primitivism, Romantic or Modernist—is the cityless country. What sets his work off from most poetry written today is that in it country and city are accompanied by temporal cousins that are inseparable not only from the two intersecting spatial grids but also from each other. When city and country meet, two distinct forms of temporality collide, linear and cyclical: time that's organized minute by minute—day to day, week to week, month to month—or by season ("Next thing you know it's winter"). Filofax vs. Farmer's Almanac. The unyielding movement of then and now and the turning back on itself of then is now.

Ashbery's poetry serves as an extreme yet nonetheless composed form of reverie, something along the lines of Keats's "Was it a vision, or a waking dream?… Do I wake or sleep?" One consequence is that the seasons and cycles of the pastoral city receive the attention due them. The soul "isn't engaged in trade," Ashbery attests in the superb "Not Planning a Trip Back": "it's woven of sleep and the weather / Of sleep." Yet neither is it absolutely disengaged. Day-to-day rhythms are conjoined with the very differently patterned day-to-night-to-day rhythms. As he proposes in "Just For Starters," effectively setting the stage for Keats: " I don't know what got me to write this poem / or any other (I mean why does one write?), / unless you spoke to me in my dream / and replied to your waking / and the affair of sleeping and waking began."

The "inhabited landscapes" of Martory's poetry are alternately foreign and local, rural and urban, actual place and painted (or filmed) representation. It's much more difficult to specify the exact nature of Ashbery's settings; still, one can assert that, like Baudelaire's "Landscape," a ravishing translation of which is included in Ashbery's 1984 collection, A Wave, every landscape in And the Stars Were Shining is cityscape. What distinguishes Ashbery's poetry from both Martory's and Baudelaire's is not the subject matter but the quantity and range of his unsettling juxtapositions, the "motion" with which the riddling "Like a Sentence" concludes, "etched there, shaking to be free."

A sort of informal formality has always characterized Ashbery's poetry—the way, for instance, his longer poems incorporate seemingly arbitrary formal schemes, whether the length of the line, the number of lines per stanza, or even, as in a work like the 313-line "Clepsydra," the sheer absence of stanzas or strophes. The form remains recognizably arbitrary, artificial, yet it becomes integral to the particular work. It's this informalism that Ashbery stretches almost to the breaking point in "And the Stars Were Shining." In formal terms nothing holds this baker's dozen of sections together, which range from twelve lines to a hundred and thirty, divided into strophes of varying lengths, with even a rhymed quatrain—a variant on the common measure of hymns—thrown in for good measure: "where not too much ever happens, / / except growing up, hook by hook, / year after tethered year. / And in the basement, that book, / just another thing to fear"

"I've never really done this before," Ashbery acknowledges at the beginning of section 8. "See, couldn't do it … See, can try again." "There is still another thing I have to do," section 11 opens: "I've never been able to do this" (Ashbery's italics). Just what this is—"this icon. That walks and jabbers / fortuitously or not"—becomes clearer in the next-to-last section, which concludes: "the hothouse beckons. / I've told you before how afraid this makes me, / but I think we can handle it together, / and this is as good a place as any / to unseal my last surprise: you, as you go, / diffident, indifferent, but with the sky for an awning / for as many days as it pleases it to cover you. / That's what I meant by 'get a handle,' and as I say it, / both surface and subtext subside quintessentially / and the deadletter office dissolves in the blue acquiescence of spring."

The "you" in these lines may refer to the reader or to some unidentified third party, but surely it's addressed "quint-essentially" to the words on the page, "my last surprise," dead letters dissolving in "blue acquiescence." This poem, and the entire volume, is composed under the sign of Death, "a life of afterwords," its presiding spirit the still scandalously underappreciated American poet Laura Riding, whose writing Ashbery has worked diligently to publicize. Riding, who died at the age of ninety in 1991, was the author of such important poems as "The Judgement," "The Life of the Dead," and "Death as Death." In the early 1940s she stopped writing poetry when she concluded that it was impossible to remove the poet, who never means exactly what the words seem to say, from the poetry. Two of Ashbery's poems in the present volume, "World's End" and "Footfalls," complement poems of Riding's with identical or nearly identical titles ("World's End," "Footfalling"). Behind the four-stanza pantoum "Seasonal" in Hotel Lautréamont, in which Ashbery contemplates "what a lying writer knows," can be discerned the harsh truths of Riding's withering prose poem, "Poet: A Lying Word."

Now, in "And the Stars Were Shining," Ashbery keeps pace with Winter. "It was the solstice," the poem opens, "and it was jumping on you like a friendly dog." The sun, and with it the passage of time, does not stand still, despite the fact that that is what "solstice" literally means. During the first eleven sections of the poem the season remains constant; this is a poem of winter, of undoing, but not, like the more insistently analytic poetry of the late fifties, with the objective of "taking poetry apart." In contrast to Eliot in The Waste Land (" I had not thought death had undone so many"), Ashbery stands firmly on the side of life and the life of poetry. "It was their / funeral, and they should have had a say in its undoing."

When, at the end of the poem's penultimate section, Spring is observed to "acquiesce"—presumably to anything one wants, hope springing eternal—and then in the last section, thirteenth month of a long winter, the interlocutor is told that "Summer won't end in your lap" (meaning both Summer won 't come to an end with you and you won 't be settling down with Summer), these are prospective seasons. The speaker stands outside their orbit even if his writing may not: "So—if you want to come with me …" He remains in his poetry and yet can envision, pace Riding, the poetry surviving his death. Here, "at the end," Ashbery composes himself in the face of his own death, and not, as in so many of his previous poems, in confronting the deaths of others. On this occasion time is neither cyclical (it remains winter, never quite making it to spring) nor linear (it remains winter, after all). It's time to end, unless the poet has forgotten something, in which case it's time to move on.

Jody Norton (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9907

SOURCE: '"Whispers out of Time': The Syntax of Being in the Poetry of John Ashbery," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. XLI, No. 3, Fall, 1995, pp. 281-305.

[In the following essay, Norton analyzes Ashbery's verse in relationship to the major modes of linguistic theory and philosophy, in particular contemporary gay theory.]

The meaning of a word is its use in the language.

—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

The poem is you.

—John Ashbery, Shadow Train

In describing John Ashbery's poetry, Paul Breslin speaks of a contemporary attenuation of the sense of an occasion for poetry, "since all occasions are really only the one occasion of consciousness meditating on its own frustrations." He continues,

As Ashbery writes in "The Painter," "Finally all indications of a subject / Began to fade, leaving the canvas / Perfectly white" (Some). With very few exceptions, Ashbery's poems are meditations on an epistemological blankness, portraits of the whale's forehead.

But if Breslin is right about the blankness of the episteme, he is describing no more than the point (after the deconstraction of epistemology) where Ashbery's poetry—and all other postmodern literature—really begins.

If Hegel is, as Jacques Derrida claims, "the last philosopher of the book and the first thinker of writing," John Ashbery is the last poet of the subject and the first poet of the free predicate—the link between The Waste Land, read as a postmodern poem (that is, as a polyphony of voices, rather than as a shoring of the fragments of the Great Tradition), and the Language poets—Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, Leslie Scalapino—who shift the formal focus of poetry definitively away from the personal subject and onto language itself as culture's open book.1 Ashbery's principal concern—a concern that mirrors its poststructuralist theoretical moment—is to explore the shifting configurations of subjectivity, which take place not only in, but as, language. Poetic thinking, for Ashbery, is reflection: the subject, as thinking being, reflects on his own subjectivity, and in doing so reflects that subjectivity—which is no more fixed or consistent than thought itself.2

Ashbery's language is characterized both by self-reflexivity and by an irreducible temporicity. Because of the formal, theoretical, and thematic centrality of language in his poetry, Ashbery's work cannot be understood outside the context of contemporary philosophy of language, and especially the work of Heidegger, Derrida, and Wittgenstein. For Ashbery, as for these other philosopher/poets, questioning subjectivity, questioning language, is something that we, as subjects of language, do.

Questioning subjectivity, in Ashbery's poetry, ultimately both avoids and becomes the more particular questioning of gay being. Although the problematic of gay desire appears and disappears in Ashbery's poetry, like the opalescent colors of a pearl—as though the poet were both willing and unwilling that it should be visible—it is a crucial, if subtle, illuminant among the polyphonic voices of his text.

Ashbery's subject has been explained by critics in various ways, as the timeless horizon of subjectivity ("the limit of the world—not a part of it" [Wittgenstein Tractatus, qtd. in Koethe]), as "primarily a function, not an entity—a function that is manifest in our assertions of desire or our investments in things" (Altieri Self), or as "the play of analogies organized by … artistic energies" (Altieri "John Ashbery"). The common element in each of these accounts is the lack of a self-sameness of subject and self-representation that would enable a full self-knowledge. The subject (or self, or agent, depending on the account) cannot directly know "himself," as subject, but only as object or, speaking more precisely in grammatical terms, as complement.3

Over and over in Ashbery's poetry, self-knowledge as constituted by a series of reflective glimpses, cinematic in their framed brevity, but lacking any governing directorial intention, gives rise to a sense of subjectivity as structural process, or syntax.4 The thinking of the subject as syntactical process slides readily into the thinking of process as life. Self and life become conflated as transformation, bound only by "a weathered child's alphabet" (Rivers) and "our miserable, dank span of days" (Three).5 "Drunken Americans," from Shadow Train, exemplifies Ashbery's speculative—and cautionary—poetics:

I saw the reflection in the mirror
And it doesn't count, or not enough
To make a difference, fabricating itself
Out of the old, average light of a college town,

And afterwards, when the bus trip
Had depleted my pocket of its few pennies
He was seen arguing behind steamed glass,
With an invisible proprietor. What if you can't own

This one either? For it seems that all
Moments are like this: thin, unsatisfactory
As gruel, worn away more each time you return to them.
Until one day you rip the canvas from its frame

And take it home with you. You think the god-given
Assertiveness in you has triumphed
Over the stingy scenario: these objects are real as meat,
As tears. We are all soiled with this desire, at the last moment, the last.

That "I saw the reflection," and not "myself," in the mirror, indicates tacitly that seeing "doesn't count" as self-cognition, or at least, "not enough / To make a difference"—to define the speaker categorically. This reflection, structuring a difference that doesn't count as one, is a fabrication, suggestive yet illusory—a kind of redaction of the mirror stage, but from the joyless perspective of the adult.6

"Afterwards … He ["I"? "The reflection"?] was seen arguing." Considering the title of the poem, one forms an image of a bar, but the location—given "afterwards," "steamed glass," and the invisibility of the proprietor—suggests the hazy reflection of memory, daydream, or dream. "What if you can't own / This one either?" the speaker asks, once again expressing doubt as to the possibility of possessing a reliable vision of himself—one which would continue to "count."

"All / Moments are like this": originarily reflective, never of transparent value, their provisional, "unsatisfactory" capacity to serve as emblems of exchange for a remorselessly transient real is further worn away, like the inscriptions on coins, each time they are manipulated in the present (the moment of currency). The frustration of this insidious wearing leads to a violent imaging of a violent wish to "rip the canvas from its frame," and to "take it home with you"—to make one of these moments fully your own. "You think" that through a kind of Nietzchean sleight-of-hand, "you" will triumph. Yet this wish can be fulfilled only as fantasy (or figure). And the multiple ironies inherent in a making real of the moment, fantasized as a theft of the imaginary (the fabric-ated) are clear.

The statement that "these objects [moments] are real as meat, / As tears" takes the form of a direct and apparently unironic assertion by the speaker. Yet to the extent that it is read without irony, its irony is only redoubled: for meat (flesh and blood) and tears (painful feelings) are every bit as conditional, as ephemeral, as "Moments" and reflections—or if they are not, that "not" is "not enough / To make a difference." The closing line of the poem asserts that we are all of us, "at the last moment," "soiled with this desire" to assert control—to make ourselves immortal (though the lastness of this moment—and hence, the possibility of any final or essentializing event—is undercut by the repetition of "the last").

Ashbery's use of four personal pronouns ("I," "He," "You," "We") and "it", and his continuous shifting of tenses, help him to represent, respectively, the syntagmatic indeterminacy of subjectivity and the considerably greater complexity of that indeterminacy when its diachronic, or historic, dimension is taken into account. The problematic of the subject is encoded in the multiple usages of "it," some form of which appears in each stanza: "it doesn't count," "its few pennies," "it seems," "its frame," and "take it home." For Ashbery, the subject is the indefinite antecedent behind the (im)personal pronoun it.7

Heidegger's argument that language is co-originary with Being in relation to Dasein (the specifically human way of "being there" in the world) seems at first to present a useful theoretical paradigm for Ashbery's linguistic hypostatizations of the self; and to some extent it does do so. Heidegger's refusal to elide language's structural (not merely mechanical) role in philosophical thinking, and his insistence that, far from manipulating language from a position of ontological priority and superiority, man is in fact produced by and from language, are crucial models of Ashbery's poetic practice. However, while Ashbery refuses to invest in either philosophical or psycho-spiritual absolutes, Heidegger annunciates an undeclared theology of the word.

Being, in Heidegger's text, disseminates itself in a series of concept/essents, that are not, at one level, essential (that is, not synonymous with Being) but that ultimately expand into synonymous essences. Language, for example, is a way of naming/thinking "what is in essence" (Poetry); and in "The Origin of the Work of Art" we find that "Language itself is poetry in the essential sense." All art, in fact, "is poetry," and poetry, it turns out, "is the saying of the unconcealedness of what is." Here, the standard, dictionary sense of the words poetry, art, and language exists in a kind of duck/rabbit ambiguity with the idolatrous imagos of the same words. The status of such terms is typically resolved by Heidegger through a kind of reductive tautology: language is only (essentially) language insofar as it is Language, poetry is (essentially) Poetry, etc. And all of these, finally, are the Same. Language, Heidegger will say, when it is Language, "at one great moment says one unique thing, for one time only" (What).

Ashbery effectively follows Saussure and Derrida, and opposes Heidegger, in understanding language as a matter of differences which are ultimately inessential. Ashbery's postmodernity—his sense that identity is constructed out of words that cannot be capitalized—is exactly what sets him apart from Heidegger, for whom it is a point of faith—or if one would rather, a matter of unconscious desire/denial—that Being is transcendental.8

Everything in language is substitute

—Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology

Taking up Saussure's principle that "in language there are only differences" (Saussure), Derrida notes the importance of spacing as the condition of difference both within language and within the subject: "Spacing is the impossibility for an identity to be closed on itself, on the inside of its proper interiority, or on its coincidence with itself. The irreducibility of spacing is the irreducibility of the other" (Positions). Representation both divides the subject from "himself," in that no representation, as such, can be self-perceived, and divides the "himself," in that the subject cannot be conceived independently of the Other. Yet only under these conditions can subjectivity come to be, as self-conception. The subject is "an effect inscribed in a system of différance"—which for poetry is the system of language. The subject, finally, "is a 'function' of language" (Margins).

To think of oneself, then, is to think not of "oneself but of a figure or sign of oneself. Derrida writes, "From the moment that there is meaning there are nothing but signs. We think only in signs" (Grammatology). Henry Staten points out,

"The thing itself is a sign" does not mean "there isn't really any 'thing itself"; nor does it mean "the thing is really all in your mind"; nor "there are really only words—we can't get outside of words." It means approximately this: "Let us consider the experience of what we call 'things themselves' as structured more like the experience of signs than like the experience of an idealized 'full presence.'" (Wittgenstein)

But in the case of the subject, the "thing itself"—the human being—exists in his subjectivity only as he is named: that is, the sign signifies a reality it creates by making that "reality" apprehensible to consciousness. And because consciousness—"our moment of attention" (Ashbery Self-Portrait)—is ephemeral, subjectivity constantly gives way.

If the subject is shaped by language, language is shaped by syntax. Syntax can be described as both the formation of motion and the motion of formation. Still, the moment of motionlessness, of the formation in motion, must, in a certain sense, be the moment of syntax. This moment of difference (difference in a "hard" sense, as distinction, rather than différance, which has the "soft" sense of the spacing that creates value) is the moment of meaning. But meaning, if it is to be more than arbitrary nomination, must involve the attribution of qualities, and/or the specification of relations. This is where the asyntactical syntax of the linking verb to be finds its place. The syntactical form X is Y is unique. It allows the proposition of a timeless (slipped) equivalence between two signifieds and it is the uniform tacit or explicit syntax of metaphor.

Ashbery frequently makes use of this nominative mode to produce what Derrida calls "savage metaphors." According to Derrida, if I say

"I see giants," that false designation will be a literal expression of my fear. For in fact I see giants and there is a sure truth there, that of a sensible cogito….

Nevertheless, what we interpret as literal expression in the perception and designation of giants, remains a metaphor that is preceded by nothing either in experience or in language. (Grammatology)

For Ashbery any metaphor for the subject will be a savage metaphor—that is, a literal expression of a seeming or appearance. Since one can only realize oneself in terms of such appearances, each of the manifold tentative figurations in Ashbery's poetry, in its limited way, articulates a virtual subject.

Some of these savage metaphors are impressionistic—for example, Derrida's (Rousseau's) giants—and often, also like the latter, they express fear. The following is from "The New Spirit":

you will have to take apart the notion of you so as to reconstruct it from an intimate knowledge of its inner workings. How harmless and even helpful the painted wooden components of the Juggernaut look scattered around the yard, patiently waiting to be reassembled!


Here the indication is that a self which is "together" is dangerous, destructive in its very wholeness.

The speaker continues,

with everything sorted and labeled you can keep an eye on it a lot better than if it were again free to assume protean shapes and senses, the genie once more let out of the bottle, and who can say where all these vacant premises should end?

Like Juggernaut ("lord of the world"), the word genie conjures up images of power and the potential for destruction, even if the "shapes and senses" the genie may assume are ontologically "vacant premises."

Between Ashbery's nominative, or metaphoric, mode and his predicative, or metonymie, mode (in which the relations of equivalence established by the verb to be are disrupted by convoluted, faulty, or disjunctive syntax, or the use of non-linking verbs, or by the combination of divergent claims in a single predication) there exists a figurative middle mode, strictly speaking neither metaphoric nor metonymie, which employs what I will call the meta-simile, or is/as structure. In this hybrid figure the "is" of metaphor and the "as" of simile are combined to produce a statement which paradoxically asserts the reality of figuration: X exists, but only (nonobjectively) in its aspect as, or in its figuration as, Y.9

Ashbery writes, in "Litany," "All life / Is as a tale told to one in a dream / In tones never totally audible / Or understandable." Where Macbeth's tale, told by an idiot, signifies nothing, Ashbery's subject asserts that life is, but exists as (in the form of) a fiction within a fiction—that is, as a structure of meaning ("the novel / We had been overhearing") given to one within a structural illusion (dream—hence the autobiographical nature of the tale).

Ultimately, for Ashbery, syntax is mimetic at once of the subject and of the impossibility of a stable predication of the subject—even as syntax. One of the conditions of possibility of syntactical structure is the expenditure of time—sentences "take" time to speak or write—more (usually) than words, which take more than their phonemes (if they consist of more than one), and so forth. At the same time, on the semantic level, syntax constitutes a retaining structure. Meaning depends on our holding the earlier words of a sentence in mind while we read the later ones; and reading a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter, etc., often involves both mental review of what has gone before and, to a lesser extent, anticipation of what will follow. Meaning is not, therefore, produced along a rigidly unidirectional spatio-temporal axis, nor can it, as Husserl and Derrida have shown, exist significantly for us as pure presence. Meaning necessarily involves an indefinite structural and temporal extension/duration, or retention/protention, whether one is speaking of morphemes or of complete works of literary art. One never exactly names, then, one temporizes.

Yet in a way uncannily similar to Heidegger's description of Dasein as never quite Dasein, but as the moment of the becoming of Dasein, the subject for Ashbery often seems somehow to "be" as spatio-temporal-material-energic-figural passage itself—one needs only to note his affection for images of waves ("set free on an ocean of language that comes to be / Part of us, as though we would ever get away" [Wave] and flames ("a flame yourself/Without meaning, yet … / … living / In that flame's idealized shape and duration" [Double]). Thinking and writing poetry can, in a partial, meta-similic way, mime the subject in process. The subject, while he can never be fully objectified in language, can be enacted as his very transitivity. To follow Ashbery's interrogatory reflections for any length of time is to be made inescapably aware of his speakers' relentless desire to arrive, amidst the "blizzard / Of speculation," at some understanding of their subjectivity, momentary though it may be. In the closing lines of "The New Spirit," Ashbery refers to

the major question that revolves around you, your being here. And this is again affirmed in the stars: just their presence, mild and unquestioning, is proof that you have got to begin in the way of choosing some one of the forms of answering that question, since if they were not there the question would not exist to be answered.


Despite the self-satirical effect of this less-than-earnest play with "questions" which are not questions at all, the point beneath the amusement is a serious one. "Being here" is an unavoidable question, urged simply and powerfully by experience, and one feels pressured "to begin … choosing some one of the forms of answering" (cf. "Why are there essents rather than nothing?" the opening sentence of Heidegger's Introduction to Metaphysics).

Ashbery writes, in "Litany":

In an internal dialogue reminiscent of Wittgenstein's curious conversations with himself in the Investigations, Ashbery's speaker drives himself to the most uncharacteristic admission that "I do care. / I can't help it."10 For Ashbery, the question of being cannot ultimately be separated from the impulse of caring. This feeling-like-an-I, and caring, is a fundamental motivation of his poetry.

For Ashbery's caring is a caring of the speaker not just about, but for, himself—the kind of care that alone makes possible the caring for another. This one-who-cares can know himself as the subject of love only through accession, not to a language of desire, but to desire as language. In this connection it is striking that Ashbery, who is gay, should so curiously efface from his poems the question of a specifically gay desire / gay language, a question equally strikingly absent from the criticism of his work, with the exception of John Shoptaw's recent book.11

Ashbery's poetry is not entirely without allusion to gay sexuality. In his prose poem "Description of a Masque," Little Boy Blue is described as "apparently performing an act of fellatio" on Little Jack Homer (Wave). Typically, however, Ashbery's language and images are neither sexual nor erotic in any obvious way.

There are several possible ways of accounting for Ashbery's disconnection from the contemporary problematic of homosexuality—a sexuality that has been called, among other things, the origin of "a species" (Foucault History) and a crucial formation in "that remorseless mockery of Philistine common sense and bourgeois realism which is modern art" (Steiner, qtd. in Dollimore). One is that Ashbery chooses to avoid allowing his poems to run the risk of being collapsed from broadly applicable meditations on the instability of postmodern subjectivity into personalist ruminations on the plight of a "disposable" minority. Ashbery has remarked, for example, that "I do not think of myself as a gay poet." Another is that the thinking of subjectivity as language tends to discourage a preoccupation with being in its psychosomatic materiality.

On the other hand, it is possible to suggest that the problematic of gay being is in fact represented in the very tenuousness of the subject position in Ashbery's poetry. David Bergman discusses the frequent relative egolessness of the gay writer, in Eriksonian terms:

Since for Erikson "ego identity is the awareness … of selfsameness and continuity," and since the homosexual's sense of himself does not "coincide with the sameness and continuity of one's meaning for significant others"… the result is a "negative identity."

This negative identity is not merely an inversion of selfhood—being the opposite of what others expect one to be—but rather an absence of identity—no one can point the gay child toward a model of who he is.

Bergman is actually describing not a lack of models so much as a discrepancy between the gay individual's "sense of himself" and the constructions according to which he is read by others. The effect is a dissonance, which is likely to manifest itself in the individual both as the feeling that one is "not right," and as the feeling that one is not one—i.e., a recognizable person, who counts—at all.

In an oft-quoted passage from the Craft interview Ashbery says,

I guess I don't have a very strong sense of my own identity and I find it very easy to move from one person in the sense of a pronoun to another and this again helps to produce a kind of polyphony in my poetry.

An amorphous, or polymorphous, sense of identity is conductive to the production of multiple voices, but not to the imagination of a definite speaker.12

It can be argued, simultaneously, that Ashbery's "skepticism about the representative adequacy of language," to borrow Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's phrase (qtd. in Chadwick), amounts to a tacit critique of the inherent homophobia of stable representation in general—that discourse constructed as a system of binary oppositions leaves no room for a way of sexual being that comes between "male" and "female," the gendered polarities of heterosexual desire.

Jonathan Dollimore notes that

sexuality in its normative forms constitutes a 'truth' connecting inextricably with other truths and norms not explicitly sexual. This is a major reason why sexual deviance is found threatening: in deviating from normative truth and the 'nature' which underpins it, such deviance shifts and confuses the norms of truth and being throughout culture.13

Who am I after all, you say despairingly once again

—John Ashbery, Three Poems

Of all of Ashbery's poems, "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" is the least self-protective, the least ironic, and the most forthright in its utterance of its speaker's desire to know. Yet even in this poem, at once a portrait of the Ashberyan subject, of the beautiful Renaissance male whose own self-portrait teases out the speaker's, and of an emphatic attraction so strong it "Makes hot tears spurt," gay desire sounds only as a discreet harmonic. "Self-Portrait" is, first of all, a poem of speculation in Ashbery's customary two blended senses of (1) thinking the nature of the subject, and (2) thinking/writing as reflective of, and ultimately as constituting, the subject.

To ascertain that Ashbery sees himself as a twentieth-century double, or reflection, of the sixteenth-century Italian painter one need only glance at the title of the book (which doubles the title of the poem) and the cover photograph of the author, wearing "the same / Wraith of a smile" he attributes to Parmigianino (Self-Portrait). Vasari's "'he set himself / With great art to copy all that he saw in the glass'," written in description of Parmigianino and quoted early in the poem by Ashbery, is thus to be taken as descriptive of Ashbery's speaker, and moreover as a reflection of the high seriousness, both moral and artistic, with which the poet himself approaches his project.

What Parmigianino '"saw in the glass,'" according to Ashbery's speaker, was "Chiefly his reflection, of which the portrait / Is the reflection once removed." Thus, within the first twenty lines of this 552-line poem we find Ashbery making a clear statement of the first of his two controlling ideas on the subject: that an attempt to produce a formulation of subjectivity is necessarily reflective—that is, distanced from both the materiality and the experience of the individual. This distance, in its irreducible separation of the individual from "himself" as subject, is death, structurally. The image is "embalmed" by "the strict / Otherness."

The "soul" establishes itself in the liveliness of the image, yet—and here is Ashbery's second major idea of the subject—"the soul is not a soul," but merely a representation, present only during "our moment of attention." The subject, in short, possesses no essentiality or principle. "The surface is what's there," in the mirror, "And nothing can exist except what's there." Furthermore, "there are no words for the surface, that is, / No words to say what it really is."

"Self-Portrait" is in part an elegy for the soul—for a time when the soul existed by virtue of its own Wittgensteinian self-certainty, its own assumption of itself (a time when one would not have dreamed of confusing a portrait or image with the soul, or conversely, of attempting misguidedly, perhaps even blasphemously, to prove the existence of the soul through a painted image of the body).14 Yet the soul, and the problem of how to demonstrate (or perhaps to conjure), through an instantaneous reflection, the existence of an essence which is radically distanced by the very structure of reflection are primarily Parmigianino's problems. For Parmigianino, the impossible project of picturing the soul issues ironically in the successful representation of the Renaissance self.

For Ashbery, on the other hand, the problem is to realize the subject in the indirect, abstract medium of language. If something unspecified is missing, as indeed it must be, from Parmigianino's portrait of his soul—its missing reflected in the portrait's moving expression of "tenderness, amusement and regret"—something specific is missing in "Self-Portrait": the instantaneity of the visual image, and the identificatory gestalt it makes possible. "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" can, in fact, be read as an elegy for the mirror stage—for a time when one lived in the simple assumption of one's own existence. For though the Lacanian infant is not without an awareness of difference from his mirror image, his anxiety concerning the lack of synonymy between himself and his image never coalesces into a fundamental doubt as to his own existence. With the evaluation of the oedipal split, and the accession to language, however, the unity of the psyche is irrevocably shattered, and difference is finalized: "This otherness, this / 'Not-being-us' is all there is to look at / In the mirror."

Within the represented world of the poem, there is a subtle but powerful homoerotic component in the speaker's attraction to the figure of Parmigianino, for the beauty of whom the speaker borrows Vasari's description, "'rather angel than man'." The poem continues,

Here the beauty of the painter—coded chastely as angelic—kindles a scopophilic engagement with his image, both as reflection of the subject and as that subject's erotic double. At the same time, Parmigianino's beauty recalls the fluid indifferentiation of the mirror stage, for which sexual union, according to Lacan, is only a metaphor. The speaker's gaze repeats the lost vision in which we first recognize our own beauty in the beauty of an other.15

Inherent in Ashbery's complex, muted representation of gay desire as a dynamic relationship between subject, other, and self-as-other, in the context of his more general refusal to allow his speakers the safety and propriety of stable form, is the enactment of a radical—and generalizable—insight: that gayness, as a shared condition of being marked by various configurations of desire for members of the "same" sex, emblematizes—in a certain sense is—the recognition that human identity, in its sexual composition as in other respects, does not conform to any general set of culturally inscribed parameters.

Early in "Self-Portrait" Ashbery's speaker, reflecting on, and identifying with, the maddening distantiation, the lack of identity, that the act of self-identification involves—a distantiation that Rimbaud, on the brink of another modernism, finely articulated as Je est un autre—speaks of Parmigianino's as

This "perverse light," in which alone Ashbery's poetry yields its "unimportant" gay reading, is a metaphor both for gayness as a way of being sexual that plays with the erotics of sameness as well as difference, and for Ashbery's formal procedure as a kind of gay poetics.

"Self-Portrait" is intensely a poem of time, in both its synergies and its aporias. The speaker's effort to determine his subjectivity can be consciously structured only out of past passages of that subjectivity: "The tale goes on," Ashbery writes, "In the form of memories deposited in irregular / Clumps of crystals." "My guide in these matters is your self / Firm, oblique, accepting everything" (71), says Ashbery's speaker, referring to Parmigianino but effectively recalling another Ashberyan image of subjectivity, "The Picture of Little J. A.," with its "hard stare, accepting / Everything" (Some). Yet what is most apparent to Ashbery's speaker is not, finally, his continuity with these images (despite the fact that "you could be fooled for a moment / Before you realize the reflection / Isn't yours"), but "The distance between us."

If each of these versions of subjectivity is transient, "Like a wave breaking on a rock, giving up / Its shape in a gesture which expresses that shape," "their importance / If not their meaning is plain." They serve "to nourish / A dream which includes them all"—the dream of an enduring, proper, fully real identity. And if such a dream can never actually be fulfilled, nevertheless it can provide us with a sustaining dimensionality. As Ashbery's speaker puts it,

Why be unhappy with this arrangement, since
Dreams prolong us as they are absorbed?
Something like living occurs, a movement
Out of the dream into its codification.

It is clear all the same why one should be unhappy, in Ashbery's speaker's view: without a valid identity it is only "Something like living" that occurs, not real life.

If hypothetical structurations of the subject are ontologically hollow, however, if their "locking into place" is even "'death itself'," nevertheless "the 'all'" of "the 'it was all a dream' / Syndrome … tells tersely / Enough how it wasn't." First of all, the real of being is "Like a dozing whale on the sea bottom / In relation to the tiny, self-important ship / On the surface" (the identificatory fiction of the subject). Second, even the chameleon subject, considered as the historical sequence of structurations of the individual, "Was real, though troubled," a "waking dream." The continuity of this existence is textual and temporal, however, rather than metaphysical. "Each part of the whole," each successive deposit "falls off," over time, and is aware of its past formation only "in cold pockets / Of remembrance." "'Death itself,'" finally, the provisional stability of the self-portrait in image or word, is life As We Know it.

The boy who cried "wolf" used to live there.—

John Ashbery, "Litany"

Ashbery's sense of the subject as a becoming-structure-going-past that can never stabilize itself as a durable presence, that involves a certain originary separation of the individual from himself as the condition of its presencing, and whose hypostatizations often appear most clearly legible when they have taken on the strangeness of the past, lends Ashbery's work a touch of pathos which is not always fended off with a joke. For example, the image of the subject—"This profile at the window"—Ashbery writes, is "The picture of hope a dying man might turn away from, / Realizing that hope is something else, something concrete / You can't have" (Houseboat).

This impression of the oppressive lostness of the self inevitably creates a host of echoes in Victorian and Modernist poetry. "For what wears out the life of mortal men?" Arnold asks in "The Scholar-Gipsy," and replies, "'Tis that from change to change their being rolls." The Scholar-Gipsy, having made the romantic choice of vision over ambition, and hence possessed of "perennial youth," is much to be admired and envied, despite Arnold's speaker's derogation of him as a "truant boy." His life is one of "unclouded joy," while we, who live "a hundred different lives," "pine, / And wish the long unhappy dream would end."

If, in Wallace Stevens's "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon," there is a certain braveness and possibility to "I was the world in which I walked" (Stevens) such a world holds, for "men, and earth and sky … / … sharp, / Free knowledges, secreted until then, / Breaches of that which held them fast" (Stevens). The disruption of "that which held them fast" (cf. Heidegger's fourfold of man and divinities, earth and sky) is such a central fact of experience for Stevens's imagination that his entire oeuvre may be read as a consideration of "the odd morphology of regret" (Stevens). For if "what I saw / Or heard or felt came not but from myself there can be no absolute or objective source of validation of truth or value. Without a participatory relation with such a source we know neither who we are nor where we belong. We live, then, paradoxically, in a self-created place "That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves." "Life is a bitter aspic," he concludes, in "Esthetique du Mal," "We are not / At the centre of a diamond."

Yet if Ashbery's speaker can feel a certain "sadness as I look out over all this and realize that I can never have any of it, even though I have it all as I in fact do" (Three), he is protected from nostalgia, in a way that Arnold and Stevens are not, by the very passage of literary and historical time. For Arnold romantic vision is credible but no longer obtainable. For Stevens the spiritual was credible, but is no longer—and Stevens suffers precisely because of the reality of that incredibility. Ashbery, however, due in part to his coming at the post-Freudian, post-phenomenological theoretical moment that he does, has no sense that the romantic, the spiritual, the transcendental ever has existed as an existential possibility. For Ashbery the "unclouded joy" of the Scholar-Gipsy is "balmy felicity. The world of Schubert's lieder" (Rivers), where "balmy" invokes its colloquial British sense, "daft."

Ashbery's radically constructionist view of subjectivity links him in important ways to the second generation of postmodernists—the Language poets.16 In his poststructuralist understanding of language as the indeterminate field on which we elaborate our psycho-social reality, and in his postmodern, post-Bakhtinian sense of culture as a cacophony of dissonant social languages, conflicting ideologies, and wildly mutating modes of representation, Ashbery should be understood as both a precursor and contemporary of the Language poets in what Marjorie Perloff calls "the poetics of indeterminancy."17

Yet there are significant differences between Ashbery and the Language poets as well, particularly on the issues of the relation of the poetic subject to language, the reader/text relation, and the temporicity of the poem. Lyn Hejinian writes:

As Francis Ponge puts it, "Man is a curious body whose center of gravity is not in himself." Instead it seems to be located in language, by virtue of which we negotiate our mentalities and the world.

This sounds deceptively close to Ashbery's sense of the subject/language relation. However, whereas Ashbery remains interested in strategies of self-determination within language (his last link with the Romantic tradition), Hejinian and the other Language poets tend to view any rhetoric of the self as colonialist in its drive to dominate meaning through voice.18 They prefer what Bruce Andrews calls "a non-imperial or language-centered writing" ("Text").

Charles Bernstein asks us to compare two possible views of what poetry is: "In the one, an instance (a recording perhaps) of reality/fantasy/experience/event is presented to us through the writing. In the other, the writing itself is seen as an instance of reality/fantasy/experience/event" ("Stray"). The shared perspective of the Language poets is that, in James Sherry's words, "spoken or written language is not a box for meaning—it is the content(s)."

Ashbery's urge to locate subjectivity, however transiently, runs counter not only to the Language poets' interest in language as "object-in-itself" (Grenier, qtd. in Nicholls), but also (in their view, at least) to their emphasis on poetry as a reader-responsive mode. Bernstein notes that much twentieth-century writing (and this would certainly include Ashbery's) has been centrally concerned with "the mapping of consciousness, an investigation implicitly involved with the nature of 'mind' and 'self'" ("Writing"). He goes on to argue that "this conception of reading/writing shares with more impersonal forms a projection of the text as sealed-off from the reader." The Language poem, on the other hand, "is open to the world and particularly to the reader" (Hejinian). It "calls upon the reader to be actively involved in the process of constituting its meaning, the reader becoming neither a neutral observer to a described exteriority or to an enacted inferiority" (Bernstein "Writing").19

Whether or not one agrees that poetry which seeks to explore consciousness is necessarily "sealed-off from the reader" (it is axiomatic for Ashbery, for example, that "there is … no seeing without interpretation" [Bernstein "Writing"]), it is evident that to the extent that language itself, as a cultural phenomenon, becomes the impersonal speech of poetry, voice tends to disappear.20

Bruce Andrews speaks of the Language poets' desire to create "A semantic atmosphere or milieu, rather than the possessive individualism of reference" ("Text"; qtd. in Nicholls). Yet although this "semantic … milieu" will no doubt be historically and culturally determined, history and finally time itself tend to disappear when language becomes voiceless. Without a syntax of being, memory, reflexivity, and consequently subjectivity are not possible; and with subjectivity goes the possibility of political and intellectual agency. The final irony for an anti-colonial, liberatory poetic is to find itself generating a literature incapable of addressing the problem of the subject in his/her historical/theoretical location. Because of this destructed relation to history, the less successful Language poetry comes to seem oddly formalist and atemporal in ways uncomfortably suggestive of the more mechanistic strains of second-generation Modernist poetry.

Time remains timely for Ashbery, even as it resolves itself into a kind of mortified timelessness for Heidegger and, in a different way, for the Language poets. "It"—life, the subject, whatever "it" is—can "come about / … / only in the gap of today filling itself / … / in the idea of what time it is / when that time is already past" (Self-Portrait). Versions of the subject occur as provisional conceptualizations or figurations which must remain incomplete precisely to the degree to which they are completions—that is, more or less static representations within the structure of language.

As for the present, "This nondescript, never-to-be defined daytime," "You can't live there" (Self-Portrait). Living, the process of existing in the passage of time, casts "no shadow, / No reflection in the mirror." It would even only be possible "As a refugee from all this"—that is, if one could escape the sequence of semantic graspings that conscious codifications of the subject represent. For in formulating an objectification of the subject, a "This is how things are," as Wittgenstein writes of the general form of propositions, "One thinks that one is tracing the outline of the thing's nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing round the frame through which we look at it."

Yet living, for Ashbery, is also an Orphic dying-to-know, in which one cannot help killing the thing one loves/is. Ashbery writes in April Galleons, "It hurts, this wanting to give a dimension / To life, when life is precisely that dimension." As for Heidegger Dasein is (in its theoretical efficiency) a giving of dimension which can never be as itself, so to be human for Ashbery is, ultimately, and complicatedly, to "see yourself growing up around the other, posited life, afraid for its inertness and afraid for yourself, intimidated and defensive" (Three). The subject is both a massive "ball / of contradictions" and a "hollow, empty sphere."

Both Heidegger and Ashbery arrive at Dasein/subjectivity as the moment of division, but whereas for Heidegger this moment is, despite his disclaimers, ontological, for Ashbery "the carnivorous / Way of these lines is to devour their own nature, leaving / Nothing but a bitter impression of absence" (Rivers). For both, the subject is "whispers out of time" (Self-Portrait)—the hesitant articulation which is the saying of being. But while for Heidegger saying is an appropriating, or "setting-itself-into-work of truth" (Poetry) which "gathers mortals into the appropriateness of their nature" (On the Way), for Ashbery the saying of the subject produces "an endless confusion of fair and variegated forms … self-important and self-convoluted shapes" which add "disconcertingly up to zero" (Three).

If for Heidegger "Language is the house of being," for Ashbery it is a house of mirrors, "pure / Affirmation that doesn't affirm anything" (Self-Portrait). Narcissus's tragedy lay in his failure to complete the circuit of self-representation—to recognize himself as himself. The success of John Ashbery's tragicomic enterprise is grounded on his recognition that self-representation is only a circuit—that subjectivity is less like the Cartesian cogito than like a wooden nickel: not something to be counted on, but to be played with (sometimes duplicitously).

At the same time, as I have argued, Ashbery's poetry comprises an affirmation of instability as the very condition of a liberatory conception of gay being. "Self-Portrait," in all its elegaic grandeur, in all its regret for the passing of a soul which it can never actually imagine to have existed, can be read as a precursive vision of the sex-positive queer of the nineties. One of the central analytical insights of contemporary queer theory is that sexual ambiguity and gender dissonance are nothing less than emblematic of the fundamental polysexuality of all human beings. Judith Butler writes:

Identifications are multiple and contestatory, and it may be that we desire most strongly those individuals who reflect in a dense or saturated way the possibilities of multiple and simultaneous substitutions, where a substitution engages a fantasy of recovering a primary object of a love lost—and produced—through prohibition. Insofar as a number of such fantasies can come to constitute and saturate a site of desire, it follows that we are not in the position of either identifying with a given sex or desiring someone else of that sex; indeed, we are not, more generally, in a position of finding identification and desire to be mutually exclusive phenomena.

In the liminality and transience of Ashbery's poetic identities, as in the anti-categorical work of contemporary queer theorists, you discover "Not the truth, perhaps, but—yourself" (Three).


1 I use the word "subject" (alternatively "speaker") to specify the biologically/socially constructed agency whose voice enunciates some or all of the language of a poem.

"Consciousness" specifies mind, thought as indeterminately comprised of individual subjectivity and a collective linguistic and cultural context.

Pieces of language that seem not to originate from a particular subjectivity can be attributed to a generalized cultural consciousness reproduced in the poem by the author.

2 Because I assume that Ashbery's subjects are male—and sometimes specifically gay male—(except where they are represented by the ungendered "it"), and for the sake of economy, I have generally used masculine pronouns. I recognize the political implications of this normalization, and the limitations it places on the range of possible readings of the poems.

3 In the more challenging versions of this subject/complement relation, the agentic element itself is non-simple. Andrew Ross notes, for example, the contemporary epistemological shift "in which linguistic subjectivity is accepted as given and necessary." After Lacan's revisioning of Freud's theories of the formation of the ego, after Foucault's critique of the subject, after Derrida's critique of subjectivity, agency itself, in Ashbery's poetry as in poststructuralist theory generally, comes to be understood as dependent on symbolic structuration within a social field in which language functions both as the architectonic foundation of culture and its principal production Hence, no purely individual intentionality can be posited. As Stephen Fredman writes, "Ashbery operates from the central American premise that the self is a shared entity, that through language, consciousness is both individual and collective" (114).

Many of the most acute and interesting critics of contemporary poetry have written on Ashbery. The accounts I have found most useful, overall, are Charles Altieri Self (132-64), Stephen Fredman (99-133), John Koethe, Marjorie Perloff (248-87), Richard Stamelman, and Alan Williamson (116-48)

4 In this Ashbery follows the implications of Nietzsche's critique of Descartes:

"There is thinking: therefore there is something that thinks": this is the upshot of all Descartes' argumentation. But that means positing as "true a priori" our belief in the concept of substance—that when there is thought there has to be something "that thinks" is simply a formulation of our grammatical custom that adds a doer to every deed. In short, this is not merely the substantiation of a fact but a logical-metaphysical postulate. (268)

5 The shaping and reshaping of meaning as a characteristic of Ashbery's poetic language has been noted by numerous critics. See Altieri Self 149, Kalstone 171, and Perloff 262.

6 See Jacques Lacan's essay, "The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic experience," in Ecrits 1-7.

7 David Kalstone writes that "The blurring of personal pronouns, their often indeterminate reference" is, for Ashbery, a way of "trying to be true not only to the mind's confusions but also to its resistance of stiffening formulations" (183). David Bergman remarks that Ashbery's "weak selfhood," which he suggests may be linked to Ashbery's homosexuality, "leads to his characteristic ambiguity of pronoun reference" (46). See my discussion of the thematic of gay sexuality below.

8 Gerald Bruns complains that Derrida's work on Heidegger in Margins of Philosophy has led to a reductive view of the latter as "a failed deconstructionist who wants to go back behind the discourse of inferential reasoning to recover a primordial 'alliance of speech and Being in the unique word, in the finally proper name'" (4). Bruns calls this view "a caricature of Heidegger's thinking" (198). Yet Bruns later makes quite a different statement:

As philosophers can claim to have found nothing in Heidegger, so both theologians and deconstructionists can claim to have uncovered onto-theological motives in him. I myself would not be surprised by the existence of these motives; quite possibly they are among Heidegger's dirty secrets. (210)

Jurgen Habermas notes,

When one lets oneself be as affected by the circumstances of contemporary history as Heidegger does, and nonetheless progresses, as if with the force of gravity, into the dimension of essential concepts, the truth claim of inverted foundationalism becomes rigidified into a prophetic gesture (162)

9 Henry Staten writes:

Metaphysics in its most pervasive form is the tendency to think that "All X is really Y."… The Wittgensteinian alternative, if we were to put it as a formula, would be something like: "In certain contexts, it is more accurate (or sometimes simply, more useful) to treat X in terms of Y" ("Wittgenstein" 282)

Wittgenstein points out that "'Seeing as …' is not part of perception. And for that reason it is like seeing and again not like" (Philosophical 197e).

10 Cf. "Teach us to care and not to care / Teach us to sit still." T. S. Eliot, "Ash-Wednesday" (Eliot 84).

Voice in Ashbery's poetry has been variously explicated. See Bloom, McClatchy, Fredman, and Ross. Thomas Gardner, through a series of quotations which are difficult to paraphrase, speaks of Ashbery as having "absorbed and internalized" "the world's 'many uttering tongues'" (145). I would agree with this if we can understand Whitman's "many uttering tongues" as practically synonymous with Bakhtin's concept of voice as a personal idiom which can combine multiple ideological languages. It seems to me that Bakhtin is the clearest theoretical guide to conceptualizing voice in Ashbery. Although Bakhtin is notorious for denying linguistic range to the lyric poem, his concepts of language, ideology, dialogism, polyphony, heteroglossia, double-voiced discourse, and centripetal/centrifugal forces within language are all of great potential use in thinking about the multivalent construction of Ashbery's poems.

11 One looks in vain in the major pieces on Ashbery by Perloff, Altieri, Perkins, Ross, Kalstone, Williamson, Howard, von Hall-berg, and Fredman for any mention of the presence or absence of gay desire in Ashbery's work.

David Shapiro describes "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" as "a love poem to the image seen within, image of artist-virtuoso and young artist" (7). Shapiro, however, seems to understand the poem's gay eroticism as less important than—indeed, almost a metaphor for—its narcissistic structure: "the poem is one of endless narcissistic possibility and impossibility" (7). In this reading, the poem becomes less homoerotic than autoerotic.

John Shoptaw argues that Ashbery's work is "misrepresentative," and that his mode of misrepresentation is "homotextual." Ashbery's poems are characterized by "distortions, evasions, omissions, obscurities and discontinuities" (4) whose "homotextuality" derives, on the one hand, from Ashbery's leaving "himself and his homosexuality out of his poetry" (4) (thus, presumably, creating the possibility of homosexual subtexts) and, on the other, from the socio-political conditioning of the McCarthy era. However, since Shoptaw sees homotextuality as a formal procedure whose applicability is not necessarily limited to sexual thematics, it is unclear in what way this technique of "cryptography" comprises a specifically homosexual rhetoric, the more so as Shoptaw insists that Ashbery's poetry "provides no secret passage to a coterie of gay readers who 'catch' its specially encoded hidden meaning" (4).

12 I do not address the question of the relation of the author of the poem to its subject or speaker—a relation which, in quasi-autobiographical poetry, is always vexed. Any autobiographical writing, no matter how candid, is inevitably fictional; and on the other hand, no fiction is ever without the formal presence of its author. In this essay I assume only (1) that there is a difference between the historical individual Ashbery and his poetic speakers, and (2) that these speakers undoubtedly express aspects of the psychic economy of their creator.

13 Michael Warner describes heterosexuality as "the modern discursive organization of sex that treats gender difference as difference in general" (202). On gay theory and sex/gender difference see Boone and Cadden, and Fuss.

14 Wittgenstein writes, "Even if the most trustworthy of men assures me that he knows things are thus and so, this by itself cannot satisfy me that he does know. Only that he believes he knows" (On Certainty 20e). He adds, "The difficulty is to realize the groundlessness of our believing" (24e).

15 In his reading of the speaker's attraction to the figure of Parmigianino, Shoptaw notes both the "enchantment of self with self" (Self-Portrait 72) and the search for "the self in another and … the other in oneself" (Shoptaw 181-82). But Shoptaw does not attempt to analyze the incompatibility of Freud's theoretically unsatisfactory description of homosexuality in "On Narcissism" (Freud actually theorizes homosexuality more convincingly elsewhere) with the attraction to an other as such that narcissim, strictly speaking, precludes. Lacan's conception of the mirror stage offers an explanation of the self-other relation that accounts for its reflexive character as a dynamic exchange, rather than a static contradiction. Shoptaw refers to the mirror stage at one point, but does not distinguish it from narcissism (see 184).

Freud discusses the genesis and character of homosexuality in Three Essays and "Psychogenesis," as well as in "Psycho-Analytic." Kaja Silverman analyzes Freud's theories of male homosexuality at length.

16 For the purposes of this brief discussion, I will take as representative of the category Language poets those authors whose work appears in Ron Silliman's collection or Douglas Messerli's anthology

17 Recent critical works in which connections between Ashbery's writing and that of the Language poets are asserted or implied include Fredman; Andrews "Misrepresentation"; Silliman, Watten, et al.; Waldrop; Nicholls; and Reinfeld.

18 The exception in Ashbery's oeuvre, perhaps, is the radically nonsequential poetry of The Tennis Court Oath, which is referred to with approval in Language poetics. See Andrews "Misrepresentation."

19 Analyzing Charles Bernstein's "The Simply," Jerome McGann writes, "The ultimate subject of a text like this is the reader" (36).

20 Peter Nicholls warns that "to reject the 'voice' is not only to deny the imperial claims of the lyric self, but also to court an extreme of tonelessness which effaces social discourse in 'style'" (125). The ironically depoliticizing (because dehumanizing) effect of the Language poets' radical renunciation of personality in language, and the emotional and aesthetic aridity that are apt to plague resolutely voiceless forms of writing, are the chief risks the Language project takes.

Works Cited

Altieri, Charles. "John Ashbery and the Challenge of Postmodernism in the Visual Arts." Critical Inquiry 14 (1988): 805-30.

——. Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry. New York: Cambridge UP, 1984.

Andrews, Bruce. "Misrepresentation (A Text for The Tennis Court Oath of John Ashbery)." In Silliman 520-29.

——. "Text and Context." In Andrews and Bernstein 31-38.

——and Charles Bernstein. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1984.

Arnold, Matthew. Matthew Arnold: Poetry and Prose. Ed. John Bryson. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1967.

Ashbery, John. April Galleons. New York: Viking, 1987

——. As We Know. New York: Viking, 1979.

——. The Double Dream of Spring. 1970. New York: Ecco, 1976.

——. Houseboat Days. New York: Viking, 1977.

——. Rivers and Mountains. 1966. New York: Ecco, 1977.

——. Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror. New York: Viking, 1975.

——. Shadow Train. New York: Viking, 1981.

——. Some Trees. 1956. New York: Ecco, 1978.

——. The Tennis Court Oath. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan UP, 1962.

——. Three Poems. New York: Viking, 1972.

——. A Wave. New York: Viking, 1984.

Bergman, David. Gaiety Transfigured: Gay Self-Representation in American Literature. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1991.

Bernstein, Charles. The Sophist. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1987.

——. "Stray Straws and Straw Men." In Andrews and Bernstein 39-45.

——. "Writing and Method." In Silliman 583-98

Bloom, Harold. Figures of Capable Imagination. New York: Continuum-Seabury, 1976.

Boone, Joseph A., and Michael Cadden, eds. Engendering Men: The Question of Male Feminist Criticism. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Breslin, Paul. The Psycho-Political Muse: American Poetry since the Fifties. Chicago: U of Chicago, P, 1987.

Bruns, Gerald. Heidegger's Estrangements: Language, Truth, and Poetry in the Later Writings. New Haven: Yale UP, 1989.

Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex." New York: Routledge, 1993.

Chadwick, Joseph. "Toward Gay Reading: Robert Gluck's 'Reader.'" In Easthope and Thompson 40-52.

Derrida, Jacques. Margins of Philosophy. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982.

——. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.

——. Positions. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981.

Dollimore, Jonathan. Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.

Easthope, Antony, and John O. Thompson, eds. Contemporary Poetry Meets Modern Theory. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1991.

Eliot, T. S. Selected Poems. New York: Harcourt, 1967.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: Volume I: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Random, 1980.

Fredman, Stephen. Poet's Prose: The Crisis in American Verse. New York: Cambridge UP, 1983.

Freud, Sigmund. The Ego and the Id. Trans. Joan Riviere. Ed. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1960.

——. Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood. Trans. Alan Tyson. Ed. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1964.

——. "Psycho-Analytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia." The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. James Strachey. Vol. 12. London: Hogarth, 1958. 1-82.

——. "The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman." Sexuality and the Psychology of Love. Ed. Philip Rieff. New York: Macmillan-Collier, 1993. 123-49.

——. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Trans, and Ed. James Strachey. New York: Basic, 1962.

Fuss, Diana, ed. inside/out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Gardner, Thomas. Discovering Ourselves in Whitman: The Contemporary American Long Poem. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1989.

Grenier, Robert. "Tender Buttons." In Andrews and Bernstein 204-07.

Habermas, Jurgen. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. Trans. Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987.

Heidegger, Martin. An Introduction to Metaphysics. Trans. Ralph Manheim. New Haven: Yale UP, 1959.

——. On the Way to Language. Trans. Peter D. Hertz. 1971. New York: Harper, 1982.

——. Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. 1971. New York: Harper, 1975.

——. What Is Called Thinking? Trans. J. Glenn Gray. New York: Harper, 1968.

Hejinian, Lyn. "The Rejection of Closure." Writing/Talks. Ed. Bob Perelman. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1985. 270-91.

Howard, Richard. Alone with America. New York: Atheneum, 1971.

Kalstone, David. Five Temperaments. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

Koethe, John. "The Metaphysical Subject of John Ashbery's Poetry." In Lehman Beyond Amazement 87-100.

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977.

Lehman, David, ed. Beyond Amazement: New Essays on John Ashbery. Ithaca, NY.: Cornell UP, 1980.

——. Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms. New York: Macmillan. 1987.

McClatchy, J. D. White Paper: On Contemporary American Poetry. New York: Columbia UP, 1989.

McGann, Jerome. "Charles Bernstein's 'The Simply.'" In Easthope and Thompson 34-39.

Messerli, Douglas, ed. "Language" Poetries. New York: New Directions, 1987.

Nicholls, Peter. "Difference Spreading: From Gertrude Stein to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry." In Easthope and Thompson 116-27.

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Packard, William, ed. The Craft of Poetry: Interviews from The New York Quarterly. New York: Doubleday, 1974.

Perkins, David. A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.

Perloff, Marjorie. The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981.

Reinfeld, Linda. Language Poetry: Writing as Rescue. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1992.

Ross, Andrew. The Failure of Modernism: Symptoms of American Poetry. New York: Columbia UP, 1986.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Ed. Charles Bally, Albert Sechehaye, and Albert Riedlinger. Trans. Wade Baskin. 1959. New York: McGraw, 1966.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. "A Poem Is Being Written." Representations 17 (1987): 110-43.

Shapiro, David. John Ashbery: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia UP, 1979.

Sherry, James. "Postscript." In Andrews and Bernstein 46-47.

Shoptaw, John. On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery s Poetry. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994.

Silliman, Ron, ed. In the American Tree. Orono, Me: National Poetry Foundation, 1986.

——, Barrett Watten, et al. "for CHANGE." In Silliman 484-90.

Silverman, Kaja. Male Subjectivity at the Margins. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Stamelman, Richard. "Critical Reflections: Poetry and Art Criticism in Ashbery's 'Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.'" New Literary History 15 (1984): 607-30.

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Williamson, Alan. Introspection and Contemporary Poetry. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1984.

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Further Reading

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Altieri, Charles. "John Ashbery and the Challenge of Postmodernism in the Visual Arts." Critical Inquiry XIV, No. 4 (Summer 1988): 805-30.

Contends that critics should view Ashbery as an innovative modern artist rather than as a poet working solely within literary tradition.

Applewhite, James. "Painting, Poetry, Abstraction and Ashbery." The Southern Review XXIV, No. 2 (Spring 1988): 272-90.

Places Ashbery's A Wave among the work of twentieth-century painters and poets.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: John Ashbery. New York: Chelsea House, 1985, 264 p.

Critical essays on Ashbery's work written by such critics as Bloom, Helen Vendler, Richard Howard, Douglas Crase, Charles Berger, and David Kalstone.

——. "John Ashbery: The Chanty of the Hard Moments." Salmagundi, Nos. 22-23 (Spring-Summer 1973): 103-31.

Overviews Ashbery's work at mid-career.

Keeling, John. "The Moment Unravels: Reading John Ashbery's 'Litany'." Twentieth Century Literature XXXVIII, No. 2 (Summer 1992): 125-51.

Analyzes the role of recognition/misrecognition in Ashbery's poem.

Leckie, Ross. "Art, Mimesis, and John Ashbery's 'Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror'." Essays in Literature XIX, No. 1 (Spring 1992): 114-31.

Examines the use of mimesis in "Self-Portrait," comparing it to Wallace Stevens's "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven."

Lehman, David, ed. Beyond Amazement: New Essays on John Ashbery. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1980, 294 p.

Contains selected essays that address common questions and misunderstandings regarding Ashbery's works.

Mohanty, S. P. and Monroe, Jonathan. "John Ashbery and the Articulation of the Social." Diacritics (Summer 1987): 37-63.

Focuses on the "individualist idealism" of Ashbery's poetry and describes this idealism in relation to his long poem A Wave.

Monroe, Jonathan. "Idiom and Cliché in T. S. Eliot and John Ashbery." Contemporary Literature XXXI, No. 1 (Spring 1990): 17-36.

Links Eliot to Ashbery through the utilization of literary and popular culture into their verse.

Ross, Andrew. "The Alcatraz Effect: Belief and Postmodernity." Substance XIII, No. 1 (1984): 71-84.

Illustrates postmodern belief in art by explicating Ashbery's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror."

Schultz, Susan, ed. The Tribe of John: Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995, 280 p.

Comprehensive survey of critical reaction to Ashbery's verse.

Stamelman, Richard. "Critical Reflections: Poetry and Art Criticism in Ashbery's 'Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror'." New Literary History XV, No. 3 (Spring 1984): 607-30.

Interprets Ashbery's poem as a demystification of Parmigianino's painting of the same title as well as a commentary on art itself.

Additional coverage of Ashbery's life and career is contained in the following sources published by The Gale Group: Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 13, 15, 25, 41, 77; DISCovering Authors: Poets Module; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 5-8R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 9, 37, 66; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 5, 165, and Major Twentieth-Century Writers.

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John Ashbery Poetry: American Poets Analysis


Ashbery, John (Lawrence)