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John (Lawrence) Ashbery 1927–
American poet, novelist, dramatist, critic, and editor.
Ashbery is often considered by critics to be a "poet's poet," because of the difficulty his poetry presents to the average reader. The typical Ashbery poem thwarts the reader through its shifting viewpoint, non sequitur associations, and hyperconscious preoccupation...
(The entire section contains 12541 words.)
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- Critical Essays
John (Lawrence) Ashbery 1927–
American poet, novelist, dramatist, critic, and editor.
Ashbery is often considered by critics to be a "poet's poet," because of the difficulty his poetry presents to the average reader. The typical Ashbery poem thwarts the reader through its shifting viewpoint, non sequitur associations, and hyperconscious preoccupation with the writing process itself. Poetry, or poetry making, is the predominant theme of Ashbery's work.
Throughout his career, Ashbery, like others in the New York school of poetry with which he has been associated, has been strongly influenced by developments in other artistic media, particularly abstract painting and experimental music, notably that of John Cage, who inspired the long poem, "Litany."
Ashbery received three of poetry's highest honors in 1976: a National Book Award, a National Book Critics' Circle Award, and a Pulitzer Prize, for his collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. In his recent book, Shadow Train, Ashbery adapts the tight structure of a sonnet sequence to demonstrate his elliptical poetics.
(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 13, 15; Contemporary Authors, Vols, 5-8, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5.)
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2659
[The observations in Shapiro's essay are based substantially on interviews with John Ashbery, 1964–72.]
Ashbery was a connoisseur of [the French author Raymond Roussel] and began a doctoral dissertation on him but decided not to go through with it, although characteristically he collected many minute particulars about that grand eccentric. Thus the modulated parodies of narration in Rivers and Mountains may be associated with the labyrinthine parentheses of Roussel's poems and novels; this contagion of the parodistic tone seems to lead structurally to a "chinese box" effect or play within a play…. [In later works] Ashbery wittily employed another device of Roussel: the specious simile, "The kind that tells you less than you would know if the thing were stated flatly."… In lieu of the organic and necessary simile, Ashbery learned from the French master an extravagance of connection that leads one nowhere…. Ashbery is also a master of the false summation, the illogical conclusion couched in the jargon of logic and reminiscent of the false but rich scholarship of Borges…. (p. 17)
John Ashbery can properly be called a child of the muse of Rimbaud. In the somewhat unenthusiastic tones of the introduction to Some Trees, W. H. Auden also placed him in the tradition of Rimbaud's dérèglement de tous les sens. Contrary to Auden's expectations, Ashbery denies French poetry as a major influence. He does, however, acknowledge the influence of Pierre Reverdy…. He admires "the completely relaxed, oxygen-like quality of Reverdy," whose cadences he likens to "breathing in big gulps of fresh air."… (p. 18)
[Raymond Roussel] is a very "prosy" poet, and Ashbery also is interested in the poetic possibilities of conventional and banal prose, the prose of newspaper articles. Many of his poems of the '60s and '70s are particularly works that function by proceeding from cliché to cliché, in a "seamless web" of banality transformed, by dint of combination and deformation, into a Schwitters-like composition in which the refuse of a degraded quotidian is fused into a new freshness…. The use of prose elements in poetry, as in William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound, is so common a heritage and so diffused a technique as rarely to provoke sensations of novelty, but Ashbery's intense employment is an adventure. The prosaic elements in the early poetry of W. H. Auden influenced Ashbery, as did the touching qualities of ordinary speech, journalism, and old diaries in Auden's The Orators…. Collage elements for Ashbery's poem "Europe" were taken from a book for girls written at the time of the First World War. The book, William Le-Queux's Beryl of the Bi-Planes, which he picked up by accident on one of the quais of Paris, is one reason for much of the placid plane imagery of "Europe."… At the time, Ashbery was "collaging" a great deal as a symptom of an imagined "dead-end" period in his writing; living in France, he felt cut off from American speech…. He often received American magazines and manipulated their contents as a stimulus and pretext for further poetry. The grand collapses often noted in Ashbery's "Europe," its dashes and discontinuities, are one result of this collagiste direction. Though Ashbery's poetry leads most recently to a calm clearness, it truly began with the presentation of "objects" and "idioms" in explicitly dislocated form…. His dislocated poetry had something of the pathos of obscurity, and the "pathos of incomprehensibility" was very much part of the mystique of such writing, though Ashbery always pointed towards principles of cohesion by discontinuity…. Gertrude Stein furnished a specimen source for the opacities of "Europe."… But Ashbery has a very full palette, and one must distinguish between grammatical anomaly, unexpected dream imagery, and the nonsensical. Ashbery is one of the poets who senses an epoch's rule system for sense itself and revolts against it with wit. His theme of "unacceptability" is allied always to related concepts of absurdity, stupidity, and the unreal. (pp. 18-21)
The self-conscious mid-progress shifts of narration in Ashbery's collagiste poems … are distinctly and masterfully of the age in which Jackson Pollock threw himself on the canvas, a proof and permission. Even though Ashbery unexpectedly characterizes himself as more aural than visual, his participation in the art world as critic has been a constant source for his critical poetry.
The influence of psychoanalysis, also, permitting a more or less watery relationship with the unconscious and everyday mind, and corollary devices of "dipping into" an almost completely associational stream … is another common heritage of technique Ashbery shares with the abstract expressionists and surrealists. (p. 21)
Ashbery's work, begun with kinds of disjecta membra, coalesces at certain periods in big coherent works: "Europe," "The Skaters," "The New Spirit," "The System," and "The Recital." The development from collage of seemingly despairing fragments to unbroken paragraphs of de Chirico-like prose (Ashbery admits to de Chirico's prose and not painting as an influence …) is likened, by the author, to the development of one of Ashbery's favorite composers, Busoni. "Busoni wrote a piano concerto, entitled 'The Turning Point,' and all his subsequent music fittingly seems different from earlier pieces."… Similarly in Ashbery's poetry the disjointed and indecisive has the look, at least, of a highly unified music. Ashbery's larger compositions achieve this "look" of compositional unity while remaining what may be a "multeity." Composition in these works is not random but rather more a matter of parsimonious distribution of disparate images, tones, and parodies than of unifications and harmonizings. One may find a tone of Pope in "The Skaters," and the mock-heroic here does sometimes bear resemblance to the highly polished surface of The Rape of the Lock. The highly polished surface in Ashbery, however, is less a social hint than a memento mori of a world of manufactured objects and smooth, unbroken concrete. "The Skaters" may be thought of as a radiant porphyry of a variety of rhetorics, including imitations of Whitman, Baudelaire, science textbooks, translations of Tu Fu, Theodore Roethke, and John Ashbery. He has described his intentions in respect to "The Skaters" as trying "to see how many opinions I had about everything."… The most alarming feature of this style is the way it keeps upsetting our charming equilibrium and understanding of tone…. To some, his meditations upon or within meditations of self-laceration add to the absurdity of the universe rather than interpret it, but these are ultimately friendly satires which point to the fact that unity, as we dream of it, is not realizable. One dreams of the perfect language within the fallen universe. Ashbery's deceptive drifts and accumulations of parody always erupt in the dramatic return which surprises and regulates, as in Proust. By his grand multeity in unity, his surprising simultaneity in unity, and a type of probabilistic unity, he achieves something of the misery and joy of a Jacques Callot baroque. He has always avoided the vanity that derives from purely random techniques. But the spectre of indeterminacy and uncertainty shadow his structural convolutions and involutions, if only in the numerous self-lacerating dwarfs that appear and disappear throughout his poems. (pp. 22-3)
Ashbery has been most extreme in his reluctance to pad his poetry with what he calls the "stuff of explanation," just as he has been reluctant to be anything but a "practical critic" or "anecdotal" critic of the arts…. However, one of his central themes is the breakdown of causality in the nineteenth-century sense. His discontinuities tend to throw us most clearly into the middle of the century of the Uncertainty Principle, one in which the poet and scientist expunge false copulas for a truer style. The montages of Eisenstein and Ezra Pound's clear, cinematic Oriental translations are part of this lucid tradition of juxtaposition. Most of the best passages in Ashbery's poetry, moreover, as in Stevens' work, still deal with the practitioner's point of view and praxis itself, however veiled. His poetry, though not vulgarly explanatory is, in the manner of the "action" painters, a criticism of poetry itself as much as of life. A dice-playing God does indeed reign over the aesthetics of Ashbery's kingdom. (pp. 23-4)
There is a kind of simultaneous irony and depth to Ashbery's work, as if a critic paused to announce that he was invalidating all his critical statements including the present one he was making and yet continued. His simultaneity is also that of chamber music, in which the "narration" of four voices can seem, as in Haydn, to recreate the comic possibilities of a domestic quarrel over a dish-towel. His domesticity and Firbankian penchant for prosy gossip can be seen further enlarged in his collaborative venture, A Nest of Ninnies. His "Pantoum" …, inspired by Ravel, is another example of a witty use of an arbitrary and musical form. Again, it is music, and not the rhyming dictionary … that inspires Ashbery's poetry. He is averse to "melodious poetry" though not to melody itself. He is most interested in sound as it joins and flies apart from the meaning of the words, and his disjunction is reminiscent of Anton Webern's practice of setting a poem with a meagre amount of imitative music. (p. 25)
One must remark, if parenthetically, that though Ashbery's own intellectual music is associated journalistically with Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch, the discrimination of their differences is equally useful. At first they were pragmatically and conspiratorially joined against poets of a different aesthetic (Richard Wilbur, for example); but though they share a common tradition of French surrealism, a taste for the Russian poets of revolution, Pasternak and Mayakovsky, and a somewhat similar procedure of montage, the characteristic Ashbery tone is not that of the others. He is neither as celebratory as Koch nor as urbane and political as O'Hara. To lump the poets of the so-called "New York School" as contemporary Chaucerians is inaccurate. The meditations of Ashbery are piously pluralist, perhaps impious to some.
As for the subject of poetic influence, Ashbery has indeed digested both the influence of Wallace Stevens and Walt Whitman. He particularly loved the long poems of Stevens…. His own ubiquitous third-person narrator might very well have derived from Wallace Stevens as a way of "entering" the poem…. Ashbery is "more spellbound by the technical virtuosity of Whitman than the spontaneous image of the bard mumbling in his beard."… Ashbery's marvelous catalogues—like that of musical instruments in "The Skaters" … also derive from Webern's "Cantata," where things "go bumping and rumbling for a time after you thought they were going to stop."… Certain elements of Ashbery's catalogue raisonné also can be associated with the noisiness of Whitman's poetry and prose. (pp. 25-6)
Ashbery's own work is much concerned with a true solicitude for the bitter impressions of meaninglessness, and this poetry which speaks of the fundamental religious absence of our day should certainly be appraised for what it is rather than for what it is not. After all, with its flourescent imagery, disjunction, collages, two-dimensionalisms, innovations in the traditional forms of sestina, and "simultaneous" use of an aggregate of styles, John Ashbery's poetry today constitutes a revitalization movement in American poetry.
Ashbery's poems are unclear; they are mysterious and seem meant to be so. Throughout this study [John Ashbery: An Introduction to the Poetry] I shall attempt to show how they are unclear, and how Ashbery values the unclear, and what is gained and lost by this species of opacity. Some of the poems are filled with dissociated elements that teasingly suggest different meanings. Humor is a large element throughout Ashbery's work: the humor of polysemy.
The poet tends to use paradox and "nonsense" to achieve, not so much an ambiguity of the kind analyzed denotatively and connotatively by "The New Critics," as a pointing to logos by its extreme absence. This theme of the absence of meaning and a concomitant style of concealments and opacities is the central and abiding metaphor within the specimen texts…. One finds that his techniques of dissociation, his use of the banal, the antipoetic, the discontinuous, and the arbitrary all yield clues to possible states of wholeness. I view the work of the '70s, moreover, as the extreme attempt to escape from the bleaker aspects of "the unacceptable" in "nonsense" and to calculate the possibility of a conversion to the heavy requirements of love and belief, which are however mercilessly parodied.
One might take the famous catalogue of I. A. Richards and C. K. Ogden [The Meaning of Meaning] and disrupt their definitions of meaning to indicate what a palette of "meaninglessness" might be, and how congruent this is with the central theme and style of Ashbery. If "meaning is an intrinsic property," meaninglessness in Ashbery's work is conjured up by an utter denial of intrinsic logos, by his lacerations of any such pathetic fallacy in his "colorless indifferent universe."… (pp. 29-30)
If meaning is "a unique unanalysable relation to other things" …, then meaninglessness in Ashbery is evoked by the constant scrutiny of disrupted rapports and the loss of any coherent relation between Nature, Man, and Divinity. If connotation is meaning, then Ashbery's poetry, like Gertrude Stein's, attempts utter meaninglessness by attempting to strip the word of any of its usual configurations and connotations.
If meaning is an "essence," then Ashbery like Sartre is existentialist and presents an absurdist impasse without essence. If meaning is "an event intended" … then Ashbery takes from the world this species of coherence by presenting a world of blank contingency, funny and unfunny unexpectedness.
If meaning is the place of anything in a system, Ashbery evokes a world where "the system" is almost an utterly unsystematic stream in which usual places, indeed any locus, is seen to be deprived. Only an absence of locus remains, as in the astronomer's concept of an extremely weighty black hole.
If meaning is "practical consequences" … then Ashbery by dint of non sequitur tends to shatter any sense of causality. (p. 31)
If meaning is "emotion aroused by anything," Ashbery's flatness attempts an affectless pose and poise to lance the sense of any arousal or emotion. If meaning is "what anything Suggests" …, Ashbery often attempts paradoxically to suggest "nothing," to present a blank configuration of words in which any interpretation may be an overinterpretation, and the circumference of meaning is either seen to be zero or practically infinite.
If meaning is "that to which the User of a Symbol refers," Ashbery is peculiarly evocative of meaninglessness when he tries to employ words without a seeming concern for the referential, as in his collaged bits and fragments. The white spaces between his words seem to remain as suggestively referential as the words themselves, with the whole pointing mystically, or insidiously, nowhere.
If meaning is that "to which the user of a symbol Ought to be referring," then Ashbery mocks the reader into a meaninglessness of an antinomian bent by consistently employing a theme that tends against any but the most chaotic obligations. Experimentalism, metrical betrayals, betrayals of syntax: all go to show that Ashbery rejects this category of "meaning."
If meaning is, finally, "that to which the interpreter of a symbol either refers, or believes himself to be referring, or believes the User to be referring" …, then Ashbery's "puzzle pictures" lead maddeningly into a labyrinth of possible denotations and possible lack of denotations.
These are some of the meanings of meaninglessness. In Ashbery's poetry, there is much confidence in a new threshold for incoherence and randomness, leading to affirmations of freedom. The poet avoids any transcendental defense for his usages of contingency, but in his work order is wilfully and painstakingly rescued from disorder. Conventional orders and meanings are parodied sharply and starkly. (pp. 31-2)
[Ashbery] has gained authority in all of his work of the '70s because of his tolerance for negativity. (p. 33)
David Shapiro, "The Meaning of Meaninglessness" (originally published in a different form in Field, No. 5, Fall, 1971), in his John Ashbery: An Introduction to the Poetry (copyright © 1979 Columbia University Press; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Columbia University Press, 1979, pp. 15-33.
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It seems time to write about John Ashbery's subject matter…. It is Ashbery's style that has obsessed reviewers, as they alternately wrestle with its elusive impermeability and praise its power of linguistic synthesis. There have been able descriptions of its fluid syntax, its insinuating momentum, its generality of reference, its incorporation of vocabulary from all the arts and all the sciences. But it is popularly believed, with some reason, that the style itself is impenetrable, that it is impossible to say what an Ashbery poem is "about." An alternative view says that every Ashbery poem is about poetry—literally self-reflective, like his "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror." Though this may in part be true, it sounds thin in the telling, and it is of some help to remember that in the code language of criticism when a poem is said to be about poetry the word "poetry" is often used to mean: how people construct an intelligibility out of the randomness they experience; how people choose what they love; how people integrate loss and gain; how they distort experience by wish and dream; how they perceive and consolidate flashes of harmony; how they (to end a list otherwise endless) achieve what Keats called a "Soul or Intelligence destined to possess the sense of Identity."…
[Ashbery] is a generalizing poet, allegorizing and speculating and classifying as he goes, leaving behind, except for occasional traces, the formative "world of circumstances," which, as Keats says, by the trials it imposes proves the heart, alters the nature, and forms a soul. Ashbery turns his gaze from the circumstances to the provings and alterations and schoolings that issue in identity—to the processes themselves. He has been taking up these mysteries with increasing density in each of his successive volumes.
I was only one of many readers put off, years ago, by the mixture of willful flashiness and sentimentality in "The Tennis Court Oath."… And I was impatient for some time after that because of Ashbery's echoes of Stevens, in forms done better, I thought, and earlier, by Stevens himself. Ashbery's mimetic ear, which picks up clichés and advertising slogans as easily as "noble accents and lucid inescapable rhythms" (as Stevens called them), is a mixed blessing in the new book [As We Know] (which has undigested Eliot from the "Quartets" in it), as in the earlier ones. But though some superficial poems still appear in these new pages, poems of soul-making and speculative classification … have been in the ascendant…. (p. 108)
Increasingly, Ashbery's poems are about "fear of growing old / Alone, and of finding no one at the evening end / Of the path except another myself," as the poem "Fear of Death" (from "Self-Portrait") rather too baldly puts it. The distinct remove of his subject matter from immediate "experience" also concerns Ashbery…. Something—which we could call ruminativeness, speculation, a humming commentary—is going on unnoticed in us always, and is the seedbed of creation…. Intuition, premonition, suspicion, and surmise are the characteristic forms of Ashbery's expression. Otherwise, he would not be true to the stage of spiritual activity in which he is interested….
[Misgivings] and questionings are often put quite cheerfully by Ashbery, in a departure from the solemnity with which truth and beauty are usually discussed. The chaos we feel when one of the truths we hold to be self-evident forsakes us is generally the source of lugubrious verse; for Ashbery, for whom a change of mood is the chief principle of form, "the truth rushes in to fill the gaps left by / Its sudden demise so that a fairly accurate record of its activity is possible." In short, a new truth sprouts where the old one used to grow, and the recording of successive truths is what is on Ashbery's mind. (p. 110)
An eminent scholar told me recently, more in sorrow than in anger, that he had read and reread the poem "Houseboat Days" and still he could not understand it. This can happen, even as people read Ashbery with good will, because Ashbery has borrowed from Stevens a trick of working up obliquely to his subject, so that the subject itself makes a rather late appearance in the poem. The poem begins with a thought or image that provides a stimulus, and the poet works his way into the poem by an exploratory process resembling, Ashbery has said, philosophical inquiry. The beginning, Ashbery modestly adds, may eventually not have very much to do with the outcome, but by then it has become enmeshed in the poem and cannot be detached from it. If a reader proceeds past the rather odd and off-putting beginning of "Houseboat Days," he will come to a meditation, first of all, on how little either the mind or the senses finally give us. In youth, we are appetitive, mentally and physically, and are convinced we are learning and feeling everything; as we age, we find how much of what we have learned is corrupted by use, and how fast the surge of sensual discovery ebbs…. After the next meditation (on the insusceptibility of our inmost convictions to reason and argument) comes a meditation on the ubiquitous presence, no matter what your convictions make you praise or blame in life, of intractable pain…. Oddly enough, our first response to emotional pain all around us, down in the cisterns, up in the gutters, is to deny we are feeling it; it is, Ashbery muses, "as though a universe of pain / Had been created just so as to deny its own existence." In the manifesto that follows, Ashbery sets forth a Paterian ethics of perception, introspection, memory, art, and flexibility. He argues, given the nature of life, against polemic and contentiousness…. (pp. 112, 114, 116)
Life for Ashbery, as everyone has noticed, is motion. We are on boats, on rivers, on trains. Each instant is seen "for the first and last time"; each moment is precious and vanishing, and consequently every poem is unique, recording a unique interval of consciousness. This is a consoling aesthetic, since by its standards every utterance is privileged as a nonce affair; it is also mournful, since it considers art as fleeting as life. In an interview he gave to the New York Quarterly (reprinted in "The Craft of Poetry," Doubleday, 1974). Ashbery spoke unequivocally on various topics—his subject matter, his supposed "obscurity," his method of writing, his forms, his influences…. The entire interview is a revealing one, and links Ashbery conclusively to the Western lyric tradition. In short, he comes from Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, Stevens, Eliot; his poems are about love, or time, or age.
And yet it is no service to Ashbery, on the whole, to group him with Stevens and Eliot; when he echoes them most compliantly, he is least himself. In any case, though he descends from them, he is not very much like them: he is garrulous, like Whitman, not angular, like Eliot; he is not rhetorical, like Stevens, but, rather, tends to be conversational, for all the world like Keats in his mercurial letters. The familiar letter, sometimes the familiar essay are his models now that he has forsaken the formal experiments of his earlier books. We open "As We Know" already included, by its title, in a complicity of recognition and inquiry. The book clarifies itself over time, and is itself the clearest of all Ashbery's books; his special allusiveness, a private language perfected over the past twenty years, appears in it, of course, but there are long stretches of accessible table talk, so to speak. These appear chiefly in "Litany," a long poem written in double columns, in what I find a somewhat trying imitation of the bicameral mind. It is full of perfectly intelligible and heartfelt ruminations on soul-making in art, life, and criticism. On the whole, it wonders why—placed, as we are, on this isthmus of our middle state—we go on living and doing the things we do: inventing, imitating, and transforming life. (pp. 116, 120, 122)
Ashbery, like Coleridge, who found all life an interruption of what was going on in his mind, lives in the "chronic reverie" of the natural contemplative. As often as not, his contemplation is chagrined, reproachful of the world that promised us so much and gave us so little. At times, he even doubts whether we are doing any soulmaking at all…. (p. 122)
Ashbery has said that his long poems are like diaries, written for an hour or so a day over long periods, and "Litany"—a "comic dirge routine," like so many of his poems—has to be listened to as well over a long stretch of time. Such a form of composition, he says in a poem at the end of "Houseboat Days," has to do with "The way music passes, emblematic / Of life and how you cannot isolate a note of it / And say it is good or bad." Nor can a line, or a passage, or an inception or conclusion from Ashbery be isolated as good or bad…. It is our wish to isolate the line as touchstone which makes us at first find Ashbery baffling; once we stop looking for self-contained units we begin to feel better about our responses, and soon find a drift here, a meander there that feels, if not like our old beloved stanzas or aphorisms, at least like a pause in the rapids. (pp. 122, 124)
"Houseboat Days" is the volume containing Ashbery's most explicit short accounts of his own intent. His model there is a tapestry done in the form of a Möbius strip; this metaphor, with its (literal) new twist on an ancient figure for the web of art, coexists with the metaphor of the litany, the chain of words, the sequence of lessons in the heart's hornbook…. As things are reduced, once leafless, to the harsh geometry lesson of winter, we learn the diagrammatic forms of life, and chant its repetitive and lengthening chant. Such is the mournful view. On the other hand, Ashbery is irrepressibly sanguine. Something will always turn up to change the mood as it does in a sonata. (p. 124)
Not only is Ashbery perennially hopeful, he is perennially generous, especially toward the whole enterprise of art—its origins in experience, the collecting of data that might help it along, its actual, stumbling efforts, its stiffening into print or onto canvas, its preservation by the academies. In "Litany," he is quite willing, for example, for the academy and the critics to exist. After all, his fresco or his "small liturgical opera," this litany, will be preserved by the academy, described by critics, long after the author dies, and even while time threatens to devour everything…. (pp. 124, 127)
As for critics, they are there, like the poets, to keep reminding people of what is in fact happening to them…. (p. 127)
The best moments in Ashbery are those of "antithesis chirping / to antithesis" in an alternation of "elegy and toccata," all told in a style of "ductility, its swift / Garrulity, jumping from line to line, / From page to page." The endless beginnings and endings in Ashbery, the changes of scenery, the shifting of characters ally him to our most volatile poets—the Shakespeare of the sonnets, the Herbert of "The Temple," the Keats of the letters, the Shelley of "Epipsychidion." He is different from all but Keats in being often very funny…. (pp. 127-28)
The rest of "As We Know"—forty-seven short lyrics—is not any more easily summarized than "Litany." There are poems (I begin this list from the beginning) about growing up, about fidelity, about identity, about death…. One could go on, listing the subjects of all forty-seven poems. They are all "about" something. Some are carried off better than others; some seem destined to last, to be memorable and remembered—none more so than the calmly fateful "Haunted Landscape."
"Haunted Landscape" tells us that we all enter at birth a landscape previously inhabited by the dead. We all play Adam and Eve in the land; we then suffer uprootings and upheaval…. Life is both a miracle and a non-event. At the end, we die, and become part of the ground cover and the ground; we become ghosts, as we are told by an unknown herald that it is time to go. The transformation takes place without our knowing how, and our history becomes once again the history of earth's dust. This is the "plot" of "Haunted Landscape"; there is no plot more endemic to lyric. (p. 130)
Ashbery is an American poet, always putting into his poems our parades and contests and shaded streets. He sometimes sounds like Charles Ives in his irrepressible Americana…. There is nonetheless something monkish in [the poems of As We Know] which, in spite of their social joy and their hours of devoted illumination in the scriptorium, see a blank and blighted end. The poem with the portmanteau title "Landscapeople" sums up our dilemma—the intersection of humanity and nature. It tells us, in brief, all that Ashbery has to say at this moment about our lives, a summary both scarred and sunlit…. At the close of "Landscapeople," Ashbery thinks of Wordsworth's "Immortality" ode, and of his own art as a Rilkean Book of Hours…. (pp. 134-35)
I have been [referring to] chiefly the more accessible parts of Ashbery, but it is possible to explain his "hard" parts, too, given time, patience, and an acquaintance with his manner. It is possible also to characterize that manner…. It is within our grasp to schematize his practice, categorize his tics—opaque references, slithering pronouns, eliding tenses, vague excitements, timid protests, comic reversals, knowing clichés. We can recognize his attitudes—the mania for collection, the outlandish suggestions, the fragrant memories, the camaraderie in anguish. If we ask why the manner, why the tics, why the attitudes, and we do ask it …, the answer, for a poet as serious as Ashbery, cannot be simply the one of play, though the element of playfulness (of not being, God forbid, boring or, worse, bored) always enters in, and enters in powerfully. The answer lies in yet another of Ashbery's affinities with Keats. Keats said that the poet had no identity of his own but, rather, took on the identities of other things—people, animals, atmospheres—which pressed in upon him. "I guess I don't have a very strong sense of my own identity," said Ashbery in the New York Quarterly interview. "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." "A crowd of voices," as Stevens called it, is spoken for by the single poet; as we feel ourselves farther and farther from uniqueness and more and more part of a human collective…. What the poet can do is remind us of "the gigantic / Bits and pieces of knowledge we have retained," of that which "made the chimes ring." If anything, in Ashbery's view, makes a beautiful order of the bits and pieces and the chimes ringing, it is poetry…. (pp. 135-36)
Helen Vendler, "Understanding Ashbery" (© 1981 by Helen Vendler), in The New Yorker, Vol. LVII, No. 4, March 16, 1981, pp. 108-36 [the first excerpt of Ashbery's poetry used here was originally published in his As We Know (copyright © 1979 by John Ashbery; reprinted by permission of Viking Penguin Inc.), Penguin Books, 1979; the second excerpt originally appeared in his Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (copyright © 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975 by John Ashbery; reprinted by permission of Viking Penguin Inc.), Viking Penguin, 1975; the third excerpt originally appeared in his Houseboat Days (copyright © 1975, 1976, 1977 by John Ashbery: reprinted by permission of Viking Penguin Inc.), Viking Penguin, 1977].
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[Shadow Train] is endearing and exasperating in the same ways that all of Ashbery's poetry is. It reflects his great strengths as a writer: endless inventiveness, superb mimicry, artistic transformations of the banal into the beautiful. And it demonstrates his weaknesses as well: a certain preciousness, an absence of self-criticism, an artistic program that allows the manufacture of poetry almost at will and without inspiration. The problem of excessive length that sometimes mars Ashbery's most ambitious efforts is here neatly solved: since each section of Shadow Train is a poem in its own right, as in a sonnet cycle, the reader who experiences tedium can pass on to the next poem without much loss or guilt. The loose structure, formally pleasing, also invites browsing and skimming.
Indeed, I have always found skimming and skating to be the best means of enjoying Ashbery, which is not the admission of deficiency it might be in another writer. Since Ashbery works with surfaces, like a painter, reading him too closely or thinking too much about his content is missing the point. One of the poems in this sequence is called "Corky's Car Keys." If you imagine a character named Corky and start worrying about his car keys, you go right past the play on sound that is the real point. Similar earnestness will give you similar difficulties with other titles too, e.g., the inspired "Untitled," and "Indelible, Inedible." A friend of mine recently said "old tomato" and I heard "ultimatum." Out of such chance collisions and freak likenesses Ashbery derives a poetry of brilliant surfaces, where the verbal gestures—narrative, assertion, lament, conjuration—are often poses for stylistic fun rather than purposive parts of some coherent whole.
How, given this fact, does Ashbery's poetry manage to seem so profound and meaningful? The answer lies in his canny manipulation of our incessant, helpless, pursuit of meaning. Even when we know that Corky is not a character and that his car keys are only a strange rhyme, we can't help imagining both…. [In] "The Ivory Tower," we may labor awhile, with dutiful concentration, to make good sense of "Those thirsting ears, / Climbers on what rickety heights have swept you / All alone into their confession …"—until we realize that the metaphor is hopelessly mixed and stop to acknowledge with a grin that the poet has once more tricked us into the generation of meaning, an earnest belief in ears that climb and sweep and confess.
This kind of thing can only work if meaning comes and goes, of course, and in the best poems of Shadow Train that is precisely the case. (pp. 4, 8)
To some, this playing at pseudo-poetry, anti-poems, will come as a disappointment, and they will presumably seek consolation among more serious and "responsible" poets. Certainly there are emotional and musical limitations to what Ashbery is doing, but I wish to applaud his air of quiet enchantment and wideeyed fun. I find pleasure in his felicitous metaphors ("The surprise box lunch of the rest of his life") and his evocations of mood … that melt away before we quite grasp them. Constant speculation will keep us upright in Ashbery's world, and certainty will send us sprawling. Laughter and melancholy give the air its bracing tingle. If you take Shadow Train in the proper spirit, you can strap on your skates, put your hands behind you, let your scarf float out in the breeze, and give yourself up to some real enjoyment. (p. 8)
David Young, "John Ashbery: At Play in the Fields of Poetry," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1981, The Washington Post), June 7, 1981, pp. 4, 8 [the excerpt of Ashbery's poetry used here was originally published in his Shadow Train (copyright © 1980, 1981 by John Ashbery; reprinted by permission of Viking Penguin Inc.), Viking Penguin,
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[Shadow Train] is a sustained experiment with a new short form…. In the past, Ashbery's lyrical strengths were best exemplified by his long poems, but now he seems able to move just as freely in a briefer space. His work has an operatic air, entertaining us with a variety of cadenzas performed against pleasantly tacky backdrops. The actual sense of the action is elusive, as in opera, and one hardly cares, coming away with a comfortable feeling that the tone has somehow carried all the important meaning. Much has been said about Ashbery's polite evasion of any attempt to synopsize "plot" in his poems and certainly there are many mysterious passages in his verse….
Ashbery carries the old saw that "poetry is its own subject" to its limit. "Paradoxes and Oxymorons" claims to be "concerned with language on a very plain level. / Look at [the poem] talking to you." We dutifully look, but the trick seems to have misfired. "You miss it, it misses you." Ashbery scratches his head, pretending to consider what went wrong, all the time keeping up his professional patter like a magician whose rabbit has gotten stuck in the hat…. Then he suddenly turns on the reader. "I think you exist only / To tease me into doing it, on your level, and then you aren't there / Or have adopted a different attitude. And the poem / has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you." Despite its paradoxes (not to mention oxymorons), this seems relatively clear on reflection: Poems address an audience that the author has dreamed up as he works, so that both are, in a sense, his creation. Meanwhile, the actual reader must make something for himself out of the poem's solipsism, so that he, too, recreates it as his own. Somewhere in between, poet and reader make contact. Although such a bald summary sounds platitudinous, Ashbery makes his thesis both playful and profound in his poem. Yes, it really does work like that.
Sometimes Ashbery can be willfully frivolous in his unseriousness, especially in his annoying habit, picked up from Wallace Stevens, of silly titles: "Penny Parker's Mistake," "The Image of the Shark Confronts the Image of the Little Match Girl," "Corky's Car Keys." At its best, though, his playfulness becomes a way of sidestepping banality, and puts solemn subjects in perspective by protecting them from overstatement…. Beneath the clowning, it turns out, Ashbery too has a certain monkish detachment. His more consistent underlying view is that life is benign…. What he calls "one's private guignol" of horrors is only part of the interior theater we impose upon ourselves.
Ashbery's reliance on ellipsis is not an attempt to play coy with his readers (at least, not most of the time). He seeks to capture "the truth inside that meaning" that prevents poetry's reduction to a paraphrase, and perhaps that is why his romantic affirmations about our passions are never flattened into mawkishness or half-truths. A grave poet like Ammons makes each wrinkle on every leaf his own; Ashbery absorbs the ebb and flow of the interior landscape and lets his poetic scenery dissolve into personification…. In finding language to depict "The weather of the soul," John Ashbery has few equals. (p. 15)
Phoebe Pettingell, "Outer and Inner Landscapes," in The New Leader (© 1981 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LXIV, No. 13, June 29, 1981, pp. 14-15 [the excerpt of Ashbery's poetry used here was originally published in his Shadow Train (copyright © 1980, 1981 by John Ashbery; reprinted by permission of Viking Penguin Inc.), Viking Penguin, 1981].
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If the New York poets are each as individual as New York taxi drivers, then with Frank O'Hara at the wheel we cruise through Greenwich Village with occasional side trips out to Fire Island. John Ashbery drives us down deserted back streets between huge locked warehouses with occasional glimpses of the harbor, then stops and soliloquizes about his driving, his poor sense of direction and the tricks perspective can play and asks us if we really want to go to the destination we had requested…. O'Hara is casual, open, revealing…. Ashbery can be formal, hermetic, secretive: he often slides a deliberate barrier between himself and his readers like the glass shield protecting a New York taxi driver from his passengers.
In Ashbery's poems there are constant echoes of other, secret dimensions, like chambers resounding behind hollow panels of an old mansion rumored to contain secret passages (which our guide emphatically denies exist). Ashbery both hunts for these secrets and tries to conceal them…. A heretic among contemporary poets who glory in "confessional" poetry, Ashbery even questions the value of "openness."
Often these secrets are conveyed in code, secret messages hidden in the everyday. Code is a metaphor for the special language of poetry, into which Ashbery ciphers his secrets. He outlines two of his main methods of coding: "I thought if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave it all out would be another, and truer, way." "Leaving out" is a method which he frequently uses in earlier poems, where the connections among diverse apparent topics of his poems seem to have been erased…. He compares his literary method of "leaving out" to the natural process of forgetfulness which has its own concealed logic.
Ashbery's other method of coding, "putting it all down," also has a parallel in a natural process of the mind: dreams, which often seem like cluttering an attic with everything imaginable. This use of "dream-work" gives Ashbery, like other New York poets, an affinity with the Surrealists. Ashbery's abrupt shifts from topic to topic detail the reader's logical expectations. Dreams use the same method to short-circuit the censorship of the waking mind. Ashbery has said: "[In poetry] I would also like to reproduce the power dreams have of persuading you that a certain event has a meaning not logically connected with it, or that there is a hidden relationship among disparate objects." Dreams, then, are active and, despite their apparently rag-bag inclusion of bits and pieces, reveal a secret code, a "hidden relationship among disparate objects." In this way dreams are like poems, particularly many of Ashbery's poems, which require the reader to relax and let the images flow over him or her, and yet at the same time to stay alert for hidden connections and look for the secret code. In another heresy (for his time), Ashbery even says that dreams, and perhaps poems, with their satisfactions of desire, may be preferable to transitory sex.
How can Ashbery reveal to a reader this secret code which is in his poetry without feeling vulnerable?… One way is to focus intensely on the present, on "our moment of attention." Ashbery's later work has often had the tone of a letter—a form which seems to have released him from certain inhibitions…. This one-to-one (and ephemeral) form allows Ashbery to reveal himself without making his private life a public spectacle. While introspective and autobiographical, Ashbery is not "confessional" in the way that Lowell, Plath and Ginsberg are.
What secrets does Ashbery reveal in poems that use devices similar to forgetfulness, dreams and letters? Until recently, the secrets we might have expected at the culmination of most ambitious poems on philosophical questions would have been some revelation of the divine. But, as Auden pointed out in his foreword to Some Trees, Ashbery is a poet in a secular age. Now, when atheism is orthodox, theology has become as abstract and figureless as an Abstract Expressionist painting. Although Ashbery calls to the "old heavens," he does not expect an answer…. Ashbery's secrets, so painfully and tortuously unveiled, are not one single, concrete truth and will vary from reader to reader; indeed he often contradicts himself, even within the same poem.
One secret Ashbery discloses is the very fact that secrets exist: not only is our age scientific and secular, but much of our poetry, particularly that influenced by Williams and by the New York poets, is emphatically grounded in the commonplace, the ordinary. Ashbery's concern with the mysterious and the transcendental, in addition to the everyday, contrasts with the poems of his friend, Frank O'Hara. When the sun, representing the source of O'Hara's poetic inspiration, speaks to him, it uses the jocular voice of another guy trying to wake him up. In Ashbery's poems, the fluid changes of subject signal to us that the hermetic glass bubble within which we try to contain "the real world" artificially is fragile and distorted…." By pushing us beyond our assumptions about reality, Ashbery moves decisively out of bounds.
At the same time as he affirms the sharply focused convex mirror which represents the ordering force of art and its opening of mystical dimensions, Ashbery turns away from its demands which impede life and he questions the restrictions art imposes on life, which is untidy. Sometimes Ashbery has attempted to reproduce the randomness of life through surreal automatic writing in books such as Vermont Notebooks and The Tennis Court Oath. However appealing automatic writing may be in theory, the result is not poetry: Vermont Notebooks is a relentlessly banal collection of lists and trivia, and most readers will punctuate The Tennis Court Oath with oaths more commonly heard on tennis courts when one's partner persists in serving outside the line.
In addition to revealing that secrets exist, Ashbery questions the process of our perception through poetry and reveals the secret of that perception by showing himself at work on the poem. This is both the subject and central metaphor of his long poem "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," which is partly a description of the strange painting in which Parmigianino copied his reflection onto a wooden hemisphere the same size as his convex mirror. When the reader is allowed backstage, into the cluttered studio, and the poet reveals himself at work, there is always a risk of breaking the spell…. Ashbery avoids this by constantly turning his curious mirror to shift its focus and keep us hypnotized. (pp. 97-100)
This simple reality, the ordinary world before it was distorted, Ashbery nominates as another of his secrets….
Certainly an important secret which Ashbery is very anxious to conceal, yet which constantly obsesses him, is his own self-portrait and what it reveals about him. The world for Ashbery is a hall of mirrors whose polished surfaces continually reflect, magnify and fragment his own image. These mirrors attract him, yet he feels compelled to shatter even their pleasantest illusions…. His awareness of illusion enables him to endure it, to face the potentially grotesque and terrifying images of himself in the distorting mirrors, and even to look again…. (p. 101)
Perhaps the ultimate secret for Ashbery is poetry itself: a code as mysterious in its source as the snowflakes which represent it [in "The Skaters"]…. What is significant is not each single flake or the entire storm but the rhythm of the shifting focus between the two. This shift is invisible and elusive, like the secret code that crystallizes into Ashbery's poetry.
Having decoded some general outline of these secrets within Ashbery's thicket of contradictions, the reader is entitled to ask: "How much work should I reasonably be expected to do before enjoying a poem? How obscure can a poet be when 'illustrating opacity' without confounding his readers?" The danger of boredom and exasperation is a real one, particularly when Ashbery's style, while pleasant enough, is not outstandingly musical and relies on imagery for its effects. Sometimes his exposition of abstract philosophical issues is rather bloodless. Yet in his mature work his quicksilver images fascinate us, and his lines pace forward with inevitability and authority.
By exploring intellectual questions deeply and attempting to discover an artistic order, Ashbery has taken a stand against the neo-Dadaists of the sixties; he is a very traditional poet who has affinities with Stevens and Rilke. Yet by moving beyond … traditional ideas of form and opening his poetry to the voices of forgetfulness, dreams, letters and secret codes, Ashbery is at the same time one of our most experimental and unrestricted poets. He has the ingenuity of a renaissance alchemist who can perform the boldest experiments because he claims the authority of the most ancient texts. (pp. 101-02)
Roberta Berke, "Neon in Daylight: The New York Poets," in her Bounds Out of Bounds: A Compass for Recent American and British Poetry (copyright © 1981 by Roberta Berke; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, New York, 1981, pp. 90-106 [the excerpts reprinted here were revised by the author for this publication].∗
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Shadow Train will change no one's mind about Ashbery's merits as a poet. His admirers will praise the new-found discipline and concentration in this collection of sixteen line, "sonnet-like" poems. His detractors will grumble about the emperor's new briefs. And the rest will continue to play Pontius Pilate washing their hands of the whole matter. Yet Shadow Train is an interesting book that can give a careful reader a new understanding of Ashbery's strengths and weaknesses as a poet.
Part of the pleasure of reading Ashbery comes from the variety of words, images, moods, and styles he can fit so seamlessly into his work. He continually surprises one with things not usually found in a poem. Shadow Train encompasses everything from Warren G. Harding to the Keystone Kops, from the idea of God to the "Image of the Little Match Girl." He can move convincingly from pathos to low humor in the same stanza or turn a piece of slang into a remarkable metaphor. Yet sometimes this diversity works against him. He often indulges in gross sentimentality, and though he tries to distance it with an ironic title, as in "Some Old Tires," the burden of his clichés sometimes sinks the entire poem….
[But] these obvious lapses are rare. Ashbery's pervasive sentimentality is usually better balanced by flashes of wit or at least the pleasant chiaroscuro of deliberate ambiguity…. His usual style is nostalgic but in a suave and worldly way—the tone of a man who has seen it all stoically looking back on life. (p. 587)
As Shadow Train demonstrates, Ashbery still has a good ear for spoken language. While there is not much traditional music in his recent poetry, it bristles with striking lines and phrases. This gift for felicitous, natural phrasing is the key to Ashbery's unique sound. Whereas most poets use the stressed word or the metrical foot for their rhythmic unit. Ashbery uses the larger unit of the phrase. This choice gives his verse its speed and distinctively supple rhythms. This practice also has its dangers. In his longer poems it can allow Ashbery's complex syntax to run away with him. The self-imposed limits of Shadow Train (fifty short poems of identical length) keep Ashbery from spinning the elegant camouflage that typifies his longer work. Here one can see how Ashbery's imagination works. Since the poems are short enough to be seen as a whole, their underlying structure, usually so elusive, becomes clearer than before. The abrupt transitions from scene to scene, image to image, are now easier to follow. They may still seem arbitrary, but at least now one can hold both unrelated parts in mind for comparison. (p. 588)
[Ashbery] is still not a poet one would recommend without reservations, but at least this volume provides a manageable introduction to his prolific and difficult work. If one is prepared to approach him uncritically, he is very entertaining, but his-work must not be read so much as overheard—like an attractive voice talking at another table. Under scrutiny, however, his graceful elegant poems often seem arbitrary and overlong. Their unity is mainly stylistic. Their meaning is in their method.
Ashbery is a discursive poet without a subject. Although he deals indirectly with several recurrent themes, themes which have become increasingly dark and personal as he has grown older, the poems are mainly the surface play of words and images. One never remembers ideas from an Ashbery poem, one recalls the tones and textures. If ideas are dealt with at all, they are present only as faint echoes heard remotely in some turn of phrase. Ideas in Ashbery are like the melodies in some jazz improvisation where the musicians have left out the original tune to avoid paying royalties. They are wild variations on a missing theme with only the original chord changes as a clue. This sort of music can be fun as long as someone doesn't try to analyze it like a Beethoven symphony. A skillful and sympathetic critic like Helen Vendler can trace major themes in Ashbery [see excerpt above], but somehow in reading him, even repeatedly, one does not see the deeper side of his work emerge so satisfactorily. Despite the awards and attention, he lacks the weight of the major poet his defenders claim he has become. Paradoxically his work becomes more pleasurable and interesting the less claims one makes for him. He is a marvellous minor poet, but an uncomfortable major one. (pp. 588-89)
Dana Gioia, "Poetry Chronicle" in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1981 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, Winter, 1981–82, pp. 579-94.∗
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Helen McNeil, a British critic writing in the Times Literary Supplement, has said that "since the death of Robert Lowell, the title of most important American poet has been on offer to John Ashbery." Countless other critics have registered similar judgments. And as if all that were not enough, the government of the United States commissioned Ashbery to write a poem for the bicentennial. Ashbery responded, with all due mockery, with "Pyrography."…
Ashbery's famous "difficulty" … has not seemed to pose an obstacle to his acclaim. This is partially due, no doubt, to the cachet difficult poems have had recently (the less one understands a poem, the better it must be), but mainly to his incredible perseverance: Ashbery's latest book, Shadow Train, is his tenth in under twenty years. His seemingly immaculately planned career is, as he says in two telling lines from a poem in this book, "too perfect in its outrageous / Regularity to be called to stand trial again."
If Ashbery had ever been on trial in the past, it was because his method was not understood. Once one grasps that method—as well as its philosophical sources and influences—one understands how the poetry is generated (although not what it is about). As Ashbery himself once noted, rather than dealing specifically with problems, issues, or feelings, his method seeks to reproduce "the actions of a mind at work or rest." A typical Ashbery poem attempts to focus attention on its own content—formless, arbitrary, free-associational fragments—rather than on any ostensible subject matter or point. Ashbery once claimed that he rarely rewrites, for the poetry's craft and "meaning" are automatically "there" in the words first put down on paper. He also claims to begin often with a title, since "there are many ways of getting pushed into a poem and they're all valid." The lines of an Ashbery poem seem less the natural products of an emotion or idea than insertions, and the overall result is, as other commentators have noticed, similar to an abstract expressionist painting—fractured and indistinct. (p. 62)
An Ashbery poem is sometimes as discontinuous in its style as in its logic. Syntactical contortions, endless parenthetical remarks, and ellipses are typical—as if the linear requirements of grammar were too constricting for the poet's roller-coaster of associative thoughts. Often Ashbery abruptly changes tense or person…. Ashbery likes to be interrupted in the act of composition—by the telephone, by an advertisement on the radio—so he can incorporate these extraneous snippets to vary the poem's music. Indeed, all of Ashbery's language seems taken from other sources, making the poems sound oddly rehearsed. Even symbols and literary allusions, when they are used, refer more to their secondhand nature than to any fresh poetic idea. Ashbery's typical tone is flat, nasal, unenthused: the emotions, like the images, seem to be used or false—certainly of no great consequence to the poet himself.
In the early 1950's, after a period of intense depression and inactivity, Ashbery attended a concert of John Cage's Music of Changes with his friend and fellow poet, the late Frank O'Hara. Ashbery recalls: "It was a series of dissonant chords, mostly loud, with irregular rhythm. It went on for over an hour and seemed infinitely extendable. I felt profoundly refreshed after hearing that. I started to write again shortly afterwards. I felt that I could be as singular in my art as Cage was in his." This inspiration resulted in, to use the title of an Ashbery poem written a few years later, a "new realism," which, like Cage's music, rejects the laws of perspective, logic, and narration in favor of randomness and discontinuity.
The roots of this "new realism," however, were in the (then) thirty-year-old French artistic movement known as surrealism, which, under the auspices of the writers André Breton, Paul Eluard, and Guillaume Apollinaire, and the painters René Magritte, Giorgio de Chirico, and Salvador Dali, fostered outrageous blends in their art of the familiar and the improbable…. What particularly caught Ashbery's attention, however, was the surrealists' (especially de Chirico's) poeticization of the banal and subordination of the crafting or organizing sensibility. As Breton, the acknowledged leader of the movement, declared, true literary art should consist of "[a] monologue that flows as rapidly as possible on which the critical spirit of the subject brings no judgment to bear … and which will reproduce as exactly as possible spoken thought."
Toward such a goal each verbal unit (images as well as words) of "spoken thought" has equal value and, more importantly, has value in and of itself rather than in relation to other verbal units or to any overarching (read: oppressive) poetic idea. Hence no "correct" balance exists between the particular and the general, or between abstraction and detail, and the resulting disjunct verse contains no specific meaning, at least the kind one would expect. As David Shapiro writes in a recent book on Ashbery [see excerpt above], "If meaning is 'what anything suggests,' Ashbery often attempts paradoxically to present a blank configuration of words" that not only are interpretation-proof but offer a "labyrinth of possible denotations and possible lack of denotations."
What, then, does this poetry concern itself with? The answer is: itself—its inconclusiveness, its antinomianism, its absurdism, and, above all, its deep distrust of language that naively attempts statements about reality and reality's possible meaning. Ashbery's poetry is, in a word, self-referential. (pp. 62-3)
Bits of self-reflexiveness occur in Ashbery's first book, Some Trees, published originally in 1956. But essentially this book consists of, in the words of Shapiro, "parodies of narration" in which the cadence and look of typical narrative poetry are used in the service of poems which, if they are not meaningless altogether, at least attempt to undermine their "announced" subjects. For example, in the apparently autobiographical poem, "The Portrait of Little J. A. in a Prospect of Flowers," clarity of image and smooth linguistic simplicity reveal absolutely nothing substantial about the poet's childhood, which one vaguely senses was full of importance (particularly regarding his sexual development). Instead, Ashbery writes around his life, and then at the end of the poem comments on this process, capping it with a slice of jarringly false nostalgia….
Ashbery snubs the standard poetic contemplation of youth by ironically "rescuing" his past by means of extraneous images and a cool remove that scants the pain and urgency of childhood. The more traditional effect of reminiscence (such as forcing the poet to reevaluate his present life or reconcile it to the past) is replaced with the unexpected one of reevaluating the method of the poem itself. These lines supply a foretaste of Ashbery's later, more ambitious self-reflexive experiments…. (p. 63)
Ashbery's quarrel with causality and referentiality takes a different form in his second book, The Tennis Court Oath (1963). Instead of modulated ironic narratives and false limpidity Ashbery resorts to the syntactically, grammatically, and metaphorically disjunct poetry of collage…. Following the lead of the painter Robert Rauschenburg, Ashbery admits everything into [the long poem] "Europe": stray bits from newspapers, lopped-off phrases from children's books, bad poetry, and loose thoughts from the back of the poet's mind—all frosted over with an equalizing emotional deadness. Like the pieces of a painter's collage, the words refer to themselves and to the "idea" of collage. Entrance requirements for the poem are gratuitousness and error…. About "Europe" Ashbery remarked, "I didn't know what I wanted to do, but I did know what I didn't want to do."
In his next two books, Rivers and Mountains (1967) and The Double Dream of Spring (1970), the title of which is taken from a painting by de Chirico, Ashbery moves back from opaque collage to the smooth ironic cadences of his early poems. But there is a wider range of feelings that are the butt of his irony….
In these volumes Ashbery still writes radically anti-causal verse. In a note to one group of poems in Double Dream the poet says that he wrote them first "in French and translated them myself into English, with the idea of avoiding customary word-patterns and associations." He also depends heavily on clichés, as in "Decoy," which uses a good number of the pseudo-political, or particularly banal industrial-newsletter, type…. The entire poem, couched in such jargon, leads nowhere … and ends with [a] false conclusion….
Ashbery's world of irony and parody continues full-steam in his next book, comically titled Three Poems , for the book actually consists of three long free-associational prose works ("I don't know what poetic means," says the poet)—"antinomian confessions" in the Christian tradition, as Shapiro points out, but, of course, contemporary ones of "discontinuity and revolt." (p. 64)
This most obscurely private of Ashbery's books was followed, in 1976, by his most accessible, the award-winning Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which contains more reflexive "guides" to the poetry than any other collection. In fact, the title poem's statements of method intrude more and more as the poem proceeds—until they become the poem itself…. [This poem discusses] its own verbal "flatness," anti-logical bias, condescension to "old" subjects, and the poet's refusal to reveal anything below the surface of the poem…. (p. 65)
In a rare moment in Self-Portrait Ashbery deals expressly with an issue: his inability, as a poet, to have a "traditional" transcendent experience, and the result ["As I Came from the Holy Land"] is probably the best thing in the book…. This poem, the title of which is taken from Sir Walter Raleigh's haunting poem about the durability of the idea of love, as opposed to its earthly variation, poignantly expresses the poet's "lateness" in history in the same way "Answering a Question in the Mountains" in Some Trees does ("It is late to be late."). But here Ashbery dispenses with irony, parody, and the usual drabness of feeling. For once, the poem's rhythm is synchronized to its emotional level. It seems as if the proximity of the transcendent experience inspired Ashbery to share his vision rather than preempt it for a discourse on method.
In Houseboat Days (1977), however, Ashbery returns to writing poems that profess their own nonproductivity…. In "Litany," from As We Know (1979), Ashbery goes back to his disjunct style, this time in the form of a two-columned poem designed to be read simultaneously and aloud, creating a disharmonious jangle. The poem's two private voices perhaps most aggressively indicate Ashbery's belief in the insurmountable separateness of two minds. The rest of As We Know resembles Houseboat Days (the latter is perhaps slightly more inspired) except for a group of poems the titles of which are longer than the actual poems; parodies, it would seem, of the worst of Richard Brautigan (for what reason, one can only guess).
Shadow Train, Ashbery's new book, parodies the national mood of retrenchment and specifically the new conservatism of form and representation in the arts (notably painting) with a tidy package of fifty poems of identical length (sixteen lines) and structure (four stanzas). But beneath the surface the poet is up to the same old tricks—only worse. (pp. 65-6)
The poet's concern with the autonomy of language takes on an especially jejune cast in Shadow Train….
On the whole the book casts a bleak, if sometimes comic, shadow—more diffuse than usual (one is less sure in this book why the poet is so obscurely despairing), but then, Ashbery never promised things would get better, or, for that matter, clearer.
If the foregoing successfully describes the curious and unique nature of John Ashbery's poetry, it would certainly seem a non sequitur to say that his work is Romantic, in the line of Keats, Wordsworth, and Tennyson. Yet Helen Vendler … says just that [see excerpt above]. (p. 66)
[Miss Vendler contends that Ashbery] "comes from Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, Stevens, Eliot; his poems are about love, or time, or age."
What can be said for this view? One thing that Ashbery's free-associational technique and surrealism allow, as we have seen, is freedom of form and content. The fact that anything gains admittance to the poem, as well as the fact that Ashbery's linguistic resources are quite deep, will make for a wide range of words that could be construed to be "about" love, time, or age. (It should be pointed out in passing that in this essay, as in Miss Vendler's, only Ashbery's understandable lines have been quoted; at least 80 percent of the total are not readily graspable at all.) But does an obscure or unintegrated utterance amid self-reflexive ruminations and misleading metaphors—"yellow flowers," or "bed"—mean the poem is a love poem?…
The Romantics' obsessive investigation of their political, moral, and imaginative relation to the external world is profoundly opposed to Ashbery's self-reflexive tap dance. Ashbery's "contradictoriness"—another supposed likeness to the Romantics—is not couched, as it is for them, in dialectic. The Romantic poets bartered with the world; Ashbery, with himself. Whether it is the early automatism or the later poems constructed from slogans, TV news, and doggerel, there is no imaginative interaction with the sensual world—not even any moments of illumination; his banal objects remain brutally dull….
The single point that connects Ashbery with the Romantics is his attempted creation of a "new world." Yet would Words-worth or even Stevens approve of something so disharmonious, denigrating, without energy, lacking transcendental effect, and, to most readers, utterly incomprehensible? (p. 67)
Ashbery's quick cutting from one thought to another is, according to Miss Vendler, part of a "consoling aesthetic, since by its standards every utterance is privileged as a nonce affair; it is also mournful, since it considers art as fleeting as life." This rather somber consideration does not take into account the unconsoling thought, suggested by Ashbery's poetry, that nothing could (or presumably should) be looked into at all…. Ashbery himself has admitted that at times he does not know where he is going in a poem, and lacks a subject—how is this to be reconciled with Miss Vendler's assertion that Ashbery has "borrowed from Stevens the trick of working up obliquely to his subject, so that the subject itself makes a rather late appearance in the poem"? Miss Vendler's own generous "deep trust" of Ashbery's associative processes—necessary in a critic—is hardly paid back in kind.
In a bold attempt to vindicate Ashbery's emotional coldness, Miss Vendler writes: "Oddly enough, our first response to emotional pain all around us, down in the cisterns, up in the gutters, is to deny we are feeling it." If this startling remark were true of our poets, their art would soon die for lack of blood. Fortunately, this is in general not the case. It is too true, however, that one vainly searches in Ashbery's poetry for some verbal correlative to the pain of loss, disillusion, unrequited love, or, on the positive side, to the warmth of friendship…. Instead, one finds the isolation of self-reflexivity…. (pp. 67-8)
Miss Vendler finds Ashbery's poetry hopeful…. Yet the more one of his poems says, the more embarrassed and the less hopeful it becomes. Also, the more knowledge it imparts, the less it succeeds; the more it displays the poet's learning, the less it educates; and the more the poetry resembles the voice of a living, breathing man, the less it is "itself." One would think that, if anything, Ashbery's poetry of non-production—involving endless linguistic copulation with no creation—threatens to destroy the enterprise of art altogether. Like the surrealists, who frightened even Sartre for this reason, Ashbery's radicalism is purely negative. Self-referentiality breaks down the vital link between the object and the world; the idea that the mind is a conduit breaks down the attachment between the object and thought. Artaud could have been referring to Ashbery when he said that the "surrealist despairs of attaining his own mind," for Ashbery replaces mind—represented in poetry by a strong and stable "I"—with a theory or code.
One might say this is, to one degree or another, true of all poets. With Ashbery, however, a serious claim has been entered that the importance lies entirely in the theory and not in what rises out of it. "It is as though poetry were incompetent to see its own image until reflected in the discursive language of criticism," says Miss Vendler. "And it may be so." Shapiro agrees: "The best poetry of our day is … a form of literary criticism." Such gross absurdities could only be uttered in an age that has little use for poets.
The "dark idolatry of the self" which Shelley feared has become a reality in contemporary art, and its poetic avatar of the moment is John Ashbery. His impressive linguistic inventiveness, and his unique voice, have been placed in the service of what Shapiro honestly calls an "icy, autocratic humiliation of the reader." Only a critic still anxious, as Helen Vendler is, to will some connection between poetry and human life and the human world could write of Ashbery that he "makes us feel more and more a part of a human collectivity," when the truth is more nearly the opposite. But as a young woman poet said to me when Shadow Train appeared: "It's like Marxism. You lie often enough and people will believe you." (p. 68)
Robert Richman, "Our 'Most Important' Living Poet," in Commentary (reprinted by permission; all rights reserved), Vol. 74, No. 1, July, 1982, pp. 62-8.
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[One] might caution the reader that Shadow Train is by no means the best place to start in reading Ashbery, as it occupies a curious position in the evolving body of his work. This collection … marks another peculiar twist in a protean career, another of the seemingly willful swerves from his natural pre-dispositions that discomfit his admirers almost as much as his detractors. Ashbery's previous book, As We Know, while it contained a number of poems as brief as one line apiece, nevertheless presented him in one of his freest, most expansive moods, particularly in "Litany," a poem long and discursive by almost any standards. Shadow Train comes then as something of a counter-move to the magnificent sprawl of "Litany," a book rigidly suited up in an unvaried form, a steady march of quatrains through fifty poems on pages numbered I through 50. Ashbery has never shown a particular aptitude for sonnetlength poems, and Shadow Train is of course something of a sonnet sequence; he has always been most comfortable in those fixed forms, like the sestina, whose spurious, exoteric nature seems to mock and comment on itself almost without the poet's help. The sonnet had seemed simply too short, seemed to afford too little space for the vast spiralling, ranging, or redoubling movements that are the best part of Ashbery. The decision to write a book of sonnet-length poems shows him again intent on testing his limits, moving antithetically against his most recent achievement. (pp. 237-38)
[Though] Ashbery certainly succeeds in hollowing out his chosen form, he does not always seem completely comfortable in it. His characteristic amplitude gives way at times to a curious kind of halting or truncation, in which sentences or whole lines of argument that had seemed destined to spin themselves playfully out were compressed into unnaturally small compass. So these poems frequently leave the reader without the sense of roundedness, that peculiarly traditional feeling of lyric closure, that most of Ashbery's best poems deliver. They further strike the reader as uncharacteristically premeditated; one has less often the intoxicating sense that Ashbery is making it up as he goes along, the feeling of shock and freshness upon arriving at destinations that seem as totally unexpected to the poet as to the reader. One on occasion even glimpses a narrative concealed through an extended metaphor, as in the peculiar detective-story plot (Columbo, it seems) that runs through "Every Evening When the Sun Goes Down."… (pp. 238-39)
Whether the form enforces or follows the particular inflection of attitude, Shadow Train shows Ashbery at his most limiting, most in the mode that Harold Bloom has referred to as the "failed orphic." Each of the poems plays out a little drama of emptying and restitution, but while the pain of loss is shrugged off throughout with a deadpan humor, it nevertheless is real, and informs many of even the best poems in the book…. (p. 239)
One might say that Shadow Train partakes more of Ashbery's tragic mode, where past and future empty one another, or empty themselves into one another, than his romance mode, where a future gathers and restores the fragments, however altered, of today…. The pathos is muted by an offhand irony, in contrast to the almost unmediated intensity of much of Ashbery's work, but muted, it seems, because the restitutive hope is similarly muted and curtailed. Even the most confident of fulfillments seem hesitant, curiously noncomittal…. The reader accustomed to Ashbery's characteristic extravagance and largesse may at first be put off by the flat, evasive quality of so many of these poems. But Ashbery may by this time be trusted to know better than the reader who would have him continue to yield familiar pleasures, and Shadow Train shows him, if not at his most daring and expansive, certainly at his most masterful. In its fecundity of trope, its enormous humor, and the perfect accuracy with which it reflects and enlarges the spirit of our age, Shadow Train is a permanent addition to American poetry. (pp. 240-41)
Vernon Shetley, "Language on a Very Plain Level," in Poetry (© 1982 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXL, No. 4, July, 1982, pp. 236-41.