Ashbery, John (Vol. 4)
Ashbery, John 1927–
Ashbery is an American experimental poet whose work is characterized by obscure syntax and elusive imagery. The Double Dream of Spring is considered his finest work. Ashbery has also written plays and, with James Schuyler, a novel, A Nest of Ninnies. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Ashbery is avant-garde, obscure, abstract, and one of our two or three best. Each of his first three books was a striking new departure. At last [in The Double Dream of Spring] we have something that looks like a consolidation—but not a retreat, certainly not a retreat. The poetry is philosophical without being pretentious: rather, a fantastic control of tone balances these poems on a witty edge between comedy and tears. "Some Words," for example, written in consciously terrible couplets, stops being funny after a page or so; the reader becomes uneasy, as he realizes that on another level Ashbery means it….
Paradox and ambiguity have always been central to Ashbery's sensibility. He sees the world as a series of random events, events which are open to a variety of interpretations—with no way to choose between. Each interpretation will have a certain validity; likewise each will be false to the total picture. "For these are moments only, moments of insight,/And there are reaches to be attained,/A last level of anxiety that melts/In becoming, like miles under the pilgrim's feet." No one interested in contemporary directions in poetry can afford to ignore John Ashbery.
Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 46, No. 4 (Autumn, 1970), p. cxxxii.
Few will disagree with at least two propositions about Ashbery's poetry: 1) it is stylistically unique, and 2) it is enigmatic. The Double Dream of Spring retains the unique Ashbery signature, but adds a new dimension of clarity and cohesiveness to his work. What I find in this volume are the best qualities of Ashbery's three previous volumes. It has the infatuation with the pursuit of beauty that we find in Some Trees, the startling newness of syntax ("words in unexpectedly brilliant new combinations") notable in The Tennis Court Oath, and what I can only call the "objectified feeling" of Rivers and Mountains (after W. C. Williams' famous dictum, "Say it not in words, but in things"). What is added in this volume is a sense of Ashbery himself in the work rather than icily apart from it. There is less the artiste here and more the poet, although that poet would not be John Ashbery without the inclusion of a sestina or two and a smattering of other French forms. What I like best about these poems is the feeling that this sophisticated, urbane, eminently "civilized" poet has experienced something of a breakthrough—that he is able to convey a sense of wonder beyond the literary sophistication which often tries to mask it.
Fred Moramarco, in Western Humanities Review, Winter, 1971, p. 96.
When John Ashbery took over the title of de Chirico's painting ["The Double Dream of Spring"] as the title for his fifth book of verse, he was confronting [the] problems of knowledge [that is, "what can be known and how can we know it?"] which had grown directly out of his earlier work. In his earlier books, Ashbery had demonstrated his ability to speak in several voices, to strike different poses regarding certain aspects of human experience, but his work seemed too gamey, too playful, his several poetic personalities spread so thin that the verse and the emotions it expressed seemed glib, untenable. He seemed to be more a tourist in the world of human experience than a resident. Such poetry has some value. It delights, but it doesn't entirely satisfy. It seemed, however, that the poetic intelligence behind the early work was itself restless and dissatisfied, as if it knew that a game was being played which would soon turn dead serious. Ashbery's early virtuosity sometimes seemed to be a nervous habit, a distraction from the crucial questions which he sensed as being imminent.
Ashbery's first important book, Rivers and Mountains, was his fourth published, and in it he began to address directly, and painfully, the issues which he had skirted in his earlier work…. Ashbery wonders at the processes of change he sees in people, in the seasons, in language, but his perception of the things about him also persuades him that nothing has ever really changed…. What we believe to be the deepest sources of our own humanity and our claim to a unique and changing present may then merely be footnotes to the "Fables that time invents/To explain its passing." If all things, all thought and feeling, are subject to time's revisions, then what can we ever know? What events, what feelings, can we ever trust?
In exploring questions such as these, Ashbery has experimented with forms of dislocated language as one way of jarring things into order; his notorious twisting of syntax is really an attempt to straighten things out, to clarify the problem at hand. Critical response to Ashbery's stylistic eccentricities have been almost amusing. On the one hand are those who berate him for lacking the Audenesque "censor" (that little editing machine in a poet's head which deletes all superfluous materials) or who accuse him simply of being willfully and unreasonably perverse. On the other hand are those reviewers who, queerly enough, praise the difficulty of Ashbery's verse as if difficulty were a positive literary value in itself, while ignoring what the poet is saying. I think that Ashbery's "difficulty" (grammatical ellipses, misapplied substantives, fragmented verb phrases, etc.) is a function of his meaning, which is a simple and unoriginal way of saying that sometimes the poet's methods work to support his meaning and sometimes they don't….
Unlike Yeats, Ashbery avoids generalized declarations of his vision of our fragmented, unpredictable world. Instead, he gives us a feel for the elusive processes of change which he is in the very act of describing; we experience the nervousness, the sudden insane calm, the cageyness and rawness of it all, because those very qualities comprise the greater part of Ashbery's method. We are not so much asked to believe, as we are compelled to feel. The sadness which suffuses Ashbery's work is never rhetorical, never programmatic or literary; the sorrow is compressed, genuine, and somehow baffingly complete. At the center of it all beats a kind of urban anguish over what we have made of ourselves and what our furious past continues to make of us….
Ashbery has always been possessed by a desire to posit a person or relationship at a particular point in time then slip that unit of time into the larger sequence of past and future. It's an attempt at redemption which strives to account for both visible and invisible aspects of life. Beginning with the poems in Rivers and Mountains, Ashbery becomes a kind of dream-interloper, looking to snatch from the fierce runaround of physical and spiritual events a sudden though elusive clarity. He strives to compute the distance between nightmare and vision, between fire and flame….
Ashbery's arguments with himself sometimes sound like a civilization talking to itself, recollecting and seeking to clarify the reasons for all the past pain, the sometimes enforced deprivations of the human imagination, the uncountable slaughters, the ghouls and glamour girls who have strutted through history's nightmares….
Ashbery's verse has always seemed more or less "prosy" insofar as it has been characterized by the unpinned rhythms and relaxed diction common to prose. When lesser talents try to write "prose poems", they do so in order to create merely gratuitous effects. The results are usually tedious and flimsy. Ashbery, however, resorts to a prose format in order to achieve a heightened concentration of sensibility, a firmer unity of feeling and thought which would otherwise be impossible to achieve in stanzaic verse. The prose sections in [Three Poems] cannot be broken down into lines of free verse. They can exist as poems only when rendered in prose….
The poet [of Three Poems] is in search of a perfect medium, an imagination warp so to speak, wherein the pure light of revelation condenses, filling past, present and future simultaneously with the constant illumination of truth. Truth, to Ashbery, is clarity, even when truth gives the lie to nature's appearances. Clarity means the perfect coincidence of dreamt knowledge and waking knowledge, of projection and articulation, of futureness and whatever is not futureness. Arguing against the possibility of such coincidence here on earth, Ashbery would instead pursue and embrace such imperfections as are available to him….
The constant analogue which links the poet to his poetic environment, to the poem and its making, is the engagement which exists (or should or could exist) between two persons. The random flux of joy and pain, inspiration and desperation, which drives people toward and away from one another, duplicates the tension lines drawn between the poet and his poetry. It's sometimes difficult to know whether Ashbery is addressing a real second person, his poetic past, or his present self. Though this at first appears to be a rather gratuitous ambiguity, it turns out to be the major unifying grammatical device in the book, since each of these secondary personae is derived from and symbolic of one essential source: Change.
W. S. Di Piero, "John Ashbery: The Romantic As Problem Solver," in The American Poetry Review, August/September, 1973, pp. 39-42.
I remember purchasing Some Trees, Ashbery's first commercially published volume (Yale Press, 1956, Introduction by Auden) in December, 1956, after reading the first poem ("Two Scenes") in a bookstore. The poem begins: "We see us as we truly behave" and concludes with "In the evening/Everything has a schedule, if you can find out what it is." A skeptical honesty, self-reflexive, and an odd faith in a near-inscrutable order remain characteristic of Ashbery's work after sixteen years. Also still characteristic is the abiding influence of Stevens….
Where the middle Ashbery, the poet of the outrageously disjunctive volume, The Tennis Court Oath, attempted too massive a swerve away from the ruminative continuities of Stevens and Whitman, recent Ashbery goes to the dialectical extreme of what seems at first like a barrage of bland commonplaces….
He is, in temperament, more like Whitman than like Emerson or Stevens. Even the French poet he truly resembles is the curiously Whitmanian Apollinaire, rather than Reverdy….
Let us, swerving away from Apollinaire, call these Ashbery's two contradictory spiritual temptations, to believe that one's own self, like the poem, can be found in "all the things everywhere," or to believe that "there is still only I who can be in me." The first temptation will be productive of a rhetoric that puts it all in, and so must try to re-vitalize every relevant cliché. The second temptation rhetorically is gratified by ellipsis, thus leaving it all out. I suppose that Ashbery's masterpiece in this mode is the long spiel called "Europe" in The Tennis Court Oath, which seems to me a fearful disaster. In Stevens, this first way is the path of Whitmanian expansiveness, which partly failed the not always exuberant burgher of Hartford, while the second is the way of reductiveness, too great a temptation for him, as Stevens came to realize. The road through to poetry for Stevens was a middle path of invention that he called "discovery", the finding rather than the imposition of an order. Though there are at least three rhetorics in Stevens, matching these three modes of self-apprehension, none of the three risks Ashbery's disasters, whether of apparently joining together bland truisms or of almost total disjunctiveness. But I think that is close to the sorrow of influence in Ashbery, which is the necessary anxiety induced in him by the siren song of Stevens' rhetorics. Ashbery (who is not likely to be pleased by this observation) is at his best when he is neither re-vitalizing proverbial wisdom nor barely evading an ellipsis, but when he dares to write most directly in the idiom of Stevens. This point, and Ashbery's dazzling deflection of it, will be my concern when I arrive at The Double Dream of Spring….
In Some Trees, Ashbery was a relatively joyous ephebe of Stevens, who evidently proved to be too good a father…. The Ashbery of The Tennis Court Oath may have been moved by DeKooning and Kline, Webern and Cage, but he was not moved to the writing of poems. Nor can I accept the notion that this was a necessary phase in the poet's development, for who can hope to find any necessity in this calculated incoherence?…
Rivers and Mountains (1966) is a partial recovery from The Tennis Court Oath, though only one poem in it, "The Skaters", seems to me major Ashbery when compared to what comes after….
Though the leap in manner between Rivers and Mountains and The Double Dream of Spring is less prodigious than the gap between The Tennis Court Oath and Rivers and Mountains, there is a more crucial change in the later transition. Ashbery at last says farewell to ellipsis, a farewell confirmed by Three Poems, which relies upon "putting it all in," indeed upon the discursiveness of a still-demanding prose. The abandonment of Ashbery's rhetorical evasiveness is a self-curtailment on his part, a purgation that imparts simplicity through intensity, but at the price of returning him to the rhetorical world of Stevens and of the American tradition that led to Stevens….
What the elliptical mode truly seeks to omit is the overt continuity with ancestors, and the mysterious compulsion operative here is a displacement of what Freud charmingly called "the family romance".
Ashbery's own family romance hovers uneasily in all-but-repressed memories of childhood; his family-romance-as-poet attains a momentarily happy resolution in The Double Dream of Spring, but returns darkly in Three Poems. Ashbery is a splendid instance of the redemptive aspect of influence-anxiety, for his best work shows how the relation to the precursor is humanized into the greater themes of all human influence-relations, which after all include lust, envy, sexual jealousy, the horror of families, friendship, and the poet's reciprocal relation to his contemporaries, ultimately to all of his readers….
Nothing is more difficult for me, as a reader of poetry, than to describe why I am moved when a poem attains a certain intensity of quietness, when it seems to wait. Keats, very early in his work, described this as power half-slumbering on its own right arm. I find this quality in only a few contemporary poets—Ashbery, Ammons, Strand, Merwin, James Wright, among others. Recent Ashbery has more of this deep potential, this quietness that is neither quietism nor repression, than any American poet since the last poems of Stevens. Webern is the nearest musical analogue I know, but analogues are hard to find for a poem like "Evening in the Country". For, though the poem is so chastened, it remains an Orphic celebration, as much so as Hart Crane at his most ecstatic….
"Fragment" [is] the crown of The Double Dream of Spring and, for me, Ashbery's finest work. Enigmatically autobiographical, even if it were entirely fantasy, the poem's fifty stately ten-line stanzas, orotundly Stevensian in their rhetoric, comment obliquely upon a story never told, a relationship never quite a courtship, and now a nostalgia. Studying this nostalgia, in his most formal and traditional poem, more so than anything even in Some Trees, Ashbery presents his readers, however faithful, with his most difficult rumination. But this is a wholly Stevensian difficulty, neither elliptical nor obscure, but a ravishing simplicity that seems largely lacking in any referential quality….
What the all-but-perfect solipsist means cannot be right, not until he becomes perfect in his solipsism, and so stands forth as a phantasmagoric realist (one could cite Mark Strand, a superb poet, as a recent example). "Fragment", I take it, is the elegy for the self of the imperfect solipsist, who wavered before the reality of another self, and then withdrew back into an interior world. The poem being beautifully rounded, the title evidently refers not to an aesthetic incompleteness, but to this work's design, that tells us only part of a story, and to its resigned conclusion, for the protagonist remains alone, an "anomaly" as he calls himself in the penultimate line….
Much of the difficulty, and the poignance, of "Fragment" is generated by Ashbery's quasi-metaphysical dilemma. Committed, like the later Stevens, to the belief that poetry and materia poetica are the same thing, and struggling always against the aesthetic of the epiphany or privileged moment, with its consequent devaluation of other experience, Ashbery nevertheless makes his poem to memorialize an intense experience, brief in deviation. This accounts probably for the vacillation and evasiveness of "Fragment", which tries to render an experience that belongs to the dialectic of gain and loss, yet insists the experience was neither. There are passages of regret, and of joy, scattered through the poem, but they do little to alter the calm, almost marmoreal beauty of the general tone of rapt meditation.
Harold Bloom, "John Ashbery: The Charity of the Hard Moments," in American Poetry Since 1960: Some Critical Perspectives, edited by Robert B. Shaw (reprinted by permission of Dufour Editions, Inc.), Carcanet, 1973, pp. 83-108.