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John Ashbery 1927–

(Has also written under pseudonym Jonas Berry) American poet, playwright, novelist, critic, editor, and translator.

The following entry presents an overview of Ashbery's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC , Volumes 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 13, 15, 25, 41,...

(The entire section contains 27981 words.)

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John Ashbery 1927–

(Has also written under pseudonym Jonas Berry) American poet, playwright, novelist, critic, editor, and translator.

The following entry presents an overview of Ashbery's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 13, 15, 25, 41, and 77.

John Ashbery is considered among the most influential and challenging American poets of the postwar period. His highly inventive, often enigmatic verse defies the conventions of logic, linear thought, and realism in an effort to deconstruct language and the paradoxical limits of verbal expression. Drawing attention to the fragmentary quality of unconscious thought and the creative process itself, Ashbery's provocative linguistic experiments, narrative juxtapositions, and improvisational style illustrate the infinite possibility of multidimensional perspective and random experience. Associated with the "New York Poets" during the 1950s and 1960s, Ashbery established his reputation with the award-winning volumes Some Trees (1956), The Tennis Court Oath (1962), Three Poems (1972), and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975). He received subsequent acclaim with additional volumes such as A Wave (1984) and Flow Chart (1991). An innovative poet of remarkable intelligence, humor, and originality, Ashbery is recognized as one of the leading poets of his generation.

Biographical Information

Born in Rochester, New York, Ashbery was raised in Sodus, a small upstate New York town near Lake Ontario. His father was a fruit farmer and his mother a former high school biology teacher. Ashbery's maternal grandfather. Henry Lawrence, was a renowned physicist at the University of Rochester whose personal library became a resource for the precocious Ashbery. Though initially interested in painting and later music, Ashbery began writing poetry as a child. Upon graduation from Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts in 1945, Ashbery enrolled at Harvard University, where he majored in English literature, completed a senior thesis on W. H. Auden, and befriended poets Kenneth Koch and Frank O'Hara. After finishing his undergraduate degree at Harvard in 1949, Ashbery moved to New York City to begin study at Columbia University, where he earned a master's degree in French literature in 1951. While in New York, Ashbery entered the booming postwar arts scene with painters Larry Rivers and Jane Freilicher and poets Koch, O'Hara, and James Schuyler—later labelled the "New York Poets" with Ashbery as their foremost representative. Ashbery's first volume of poetry, Turandot and Other Poems (1953), was a limited edition publication with illustrations by Freilicher. Between 1951 and 1955, Ashbery worked as copywriter for Oxford University Press and McGraw-Hill. During the early 1950s, Ashbery also wrote two plays—The Heroes (1952) and The Compromise (1955). A third play, The Philosopher (1964), appeared in Art and Literature magazine and was later republished with his earlier two in Three Plays (1978), The manuscript of Ashbery's second volume of poetry, Some Trees, was selected by Auden as the winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize in 1956 and published the same year. The recipient of two Fulbright scholarships, Ashbery set off for Paris where he lived and worked for the next decade as a poet and art critic for several prominent periodicals, including the New York Herald Tribune, Art International, and ArtNews, for which he later served as executive editor from 1966 to 1972. While overseas, Ashbery produced The Tennis Court Oath, earning him the Harriet Monroe Poetry Award from Poetry magazine the next year. Upon his return to New York in 1965, Ashbery published Rivers and Mountains (1966), a National Book Award nominee. Sunrise in Suburbia (1968), Fragment (1969), and the novel A Nest of Ninnies (1969) with Schuyler. He also received several Guggenheim fellowships, grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1969. Over the next decade, Ashbery published The Double Dream of Spring (1970), Three Poems (1972), recipient of a Shelley Memorial Award, and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976. He has since published additional volumes of poetry—Houseboat Days (1977), As We Know (1979), Shadow Train (1981), A Wave (1984), April Galleons (1987), Flow Chart (1991), Hotel Lautreamont (1992), And the Stars Were Shining (1994), and Can You Hear, Bird (1995)—and a collection of art criticism, Reported Sightings (1989). An art critic for Newsweek during the 1980s, Ashbery has also edited numerous anthologies of contemporary poetry, translated several French titles, and taught English and creative writing at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York from 1974 to 1990. He was awarded the Robert Frost medal from the Poetry Society of America in 1995.

Major Works

Ashbery's preoccupation with the indeterminate relationship between language, perception, time, and artistic expression is a prominent feature of his poetry. Influenced by French symbolist writers, modern abstract expressionist art, particularly the action paintings of Jackson Pollack and Robert Motherwell, and the avant-garde music of composer John Cage, Ashbery's poetry derives from the post-logical literary and artistic traditions of the early twentieth century. Some Trees, Ashbery's first major publication, displays his technical skill as well as early attempts to articulate multiple levels of reality in flights of imagination and word play. In one poem, "The Instruction Manual," the speaker is a disenchanted technical writer who daydreams about a faraway trip to Guadalajara, suggesting the ironic tension between order and the longing to escape. The Tennis Court Oath focuses on the incomprehensible totality of language in disjointed compositions resembling surrealist visual art. The collage poem "Europe," divided into 111 parts with cut-outs from the 1917 British detective novel Beryl of the Biplane, revolves around themes of postwar espionage, political paranoia, and the failure of technology and language. In another poem, "They Dream Only of America," Ashbery similarly evokes the disorienting simultaneity of lived experience in a random assemblage of non sequiturs and wide-ranging references to politics, literature, and popular culture. Rivers and Mountains is a transitional work that introduces the innovative roving perspective of Ashbery's mature style, particularly as revealed in the poem "Clepsydra," whose title refers to a water clock. This poem, characteristic of many of Ashbery's subsequent compositions, begins mid-thought and contains alternating first and second person observations, exposing the nonverbal interaction between conscious and unconscious reflection. The interchangeable use of first, second, and third person pronouns to portray shifting perspective would become a staple device in Ashbery's work. Another poem from this volume, "The Skaters," suggests the performativity of linguistic displays as a series of dissolving and surfacing activities and entities. Three Poems consists of a book length prose meditation divided into three parts. The middle poem, "The System," is among Ashbery's most important linguistic experiments in which he reflects on the living, open-ended qualities of poetry and posits that in the elusive malleability of language inheres the foundation for love, understanding, and interpersonal connectivity. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror signals the culmination of Ashbery's previous innovations, incorporating fragmentary digressions, crosscuts, irregular syntax, and dreamlike self-examination in evocative language and sensuous phrasing that denies logical comprehension. The title poem, inspired by the self-portrait of sixteenth century Italian painter Francesco Parmigianino, foregrounds the distortions of self-image and sensory perception to explore the limitations of form and the sprawling byways of conscious thought. In a final recital, a recurring feature of Ashbery's poetry, he summarizes the significance and affirmative power of poetry and art as a means to approach the "otherness" of language. "Litany" a notable poem from As We Know, further probes the ineffable gap between perception and language. Consisting of two columns of verse, one in roman the other in italic type, Ashbery illustrates the disharmonious intersection of experience, mood, and free association in a cacophony of competing voices. The lengthy title poem of A Wave, another significant work, explores the perpetual unfolding of experience and the preconditions for love, particularly as found in epiphany and replenishing moments of speechless withdraw and distraction. Ashbery's investigations into the essence and dimensions of expression is foremost in the book length poem Flow Chart. Divided into six sections, the lengthy composition is a pastiche of personal memory, literary allusion, extraneous fragments of daily experience, and internal dialogue that suggest the regenerative nature of language despite its inherent inadequacy and perpetual deconstruction. Subsequent volumes, including Hotel Lautreamont, And the Stars Where Shining, and Can You Hear, Bird, evince similar efforts to come to terms with the insufficiency and ambivalence of language in Ashbery's trademark amalgamation of meandering ruminations, semantic puzzles, deadpan rhetoric, artful solecisms, and moments of awestruck revelation.

Critical Reception

Ashbery is regarded as one of the most important American poets of the last half century. His demanding, idiosyncratic studies of perception, thought processes, and the mutability of language are consistently praised for their capacity to conjure disquieting verbal landscapes of exceptional depth and resonance. While Some Trees, The Tennis Court Oath, and Three Poems established Ashbery's reputation as a formidable emerging talent, he is best known for his acclaimed Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, generally considered his most significant work. Subsequent volumes, particularly Flow Chart, have also attracted considerable critical attention and esteem. Though some critics find fault in the opacity of Ashbery's solipsistic poetry, often oblique to the point of impenetrability, most focus on his remarkable ability to evoke the totality of being in accumulations of random observations, incongruous associations, and the fleeting sensations of awareness. Despite the daunting aspirations of his ambitious investigations into the limits of knowledge and expression, as many critics note, Ashbery counters hopelessness with irony, parody, and invigorating language that extracts nascent and residual meanings from seemingly disconnected musings and the mundane minutiae of everyday experience. Distinguished for his linguistic dislocations and capacious vision, critics frequently cite the influence of Wallace Stevens and Walt Whitman in Ashbery's poetry, as well as the aesthetic concerns of avant-garde art and music which informs so much of his work. A highly original and much honored poet, Ashbery is hailed as one of the most significant American poets of the twentieth century.

Principal Works

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The Heroes (drama) 1952
Turandot and Other Poems (poetry) 1953
The Compromise (drama) 1955
Some Trees (poetry) 1960
The Poems (poetry) 1960
The Tennis Court Oath (poetry) 1962
The Philosopher (drama) 1964
Rivers and Mountains (poetry) 1966
Selected Poems (poetry) 1967
Sunrise in Suburbia (poetry) 1968
Three Madigrals (poetry) 1968
Fragment (poetry) 1969
A Nest of Ninnies [with James Schuyler] (novel) 1969
The Double Dream of Spring (poetry) 1970
The New Spirit (poetry) 1970
Three Poems (poetry) 1972
Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (poetry) 1975
The Serious Doll (poetry) 1975
The Vermont Notebook [with Joe Brainard] (poetry) 1975
Houseboat Days (poetry) 1977
Three Plays [includes The Heroes, The Compromise, and The Philosopher] (drama) 1978
As We Know (poetry) 1979
Shadow Train: Fifty Lyrics (poetry) 1981
A Wave (poetry) 1984
Selected Poems (poetry) 1985
April Galleons (poetry) 1987
Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles, 1957–1987 (criticism) 1989
Flow Chart (poetry) 1991
Hotel Lautreamont (poetry) 1992
And the Stars Were Shining (poetry) 1994
Can You Hear, Bird (poetry) 1995
The Mooring of Starting Out: The First Five Books of Poetry (poetry) 1997

Kevin Clark (essay date Spring 1990)

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SOURCE: "John Ashbery's 'A Wave': Privileging the Symbol," in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 26, No. 2, Spring, 1990, pp. 271-9.

[In the following essay, Clark offers critical analysis of the poem "The Wave." According to Clark, "Ashbery's poetry is distinguished by an enigmatic style which privileges indeterminacy rather than the traditional symbolist style practiced by most modernist and postmodernist poets."

… [long poems] are in a way diaries or logbooks of a continuing experience that continues to provide new reflections and therefore [a long poem] gets to be much closer to a whole reality than the shorter ones do.

      John Ashbery
      Interview, New York Quarterly

That Ashbery believes long poems are "much closer to a whole reality" than shorter poems is telling. Despite their sometimes inhibiting length and poetics, his own long poems written since 1975 are considerably closer not only to "a whole reality" but to conventional poetic technique, one which few critics acknowledge. One of his most brilliant critics is Marjorie Perloff, who without making a distinction between long and short poems, maintains that Ashbery's poetry is distinguished by an enigmatic style which privileges indeterminacy rather than the traditional symbolist style practiced by most modernist and postmodernist poets. I would like here to refine Perloff's thesis by suggesting that, while Ashbery makes much use of this enigmatic style in his long poems, passages characterized by such a style are blended into and subordinated to a dominant symbolist technique, rendering his later long poems surprisingly conventional and more easily interpretable. A good example is his most recent long poem, "A Wave" (1984).

Taken from the book by the same title, "A Wave" is characterized by the poet's desire to represent experience as ongoing impression, "the tender blur of the setting." Where most poets write as if meaning can be gathered from distinctly unique or intense episodes, Ashbery—particularly in his more recent long poems—insists that only a sense of meaning can be felt, and this only for short periods.

     And the issue of making sense becomes such a far-off one.
     Isn't this "sense"—
     This little dog of my life that I can see—that answers me
     Like a dog, and wags its tails, though excitement and
       fidelity are
     About all that ever gets expressed?

While his subject here may be the indeterminacy of consciousness, his writing is conventionally referential. By "sense" of meaning he intends the emotional world we inhabit. Since the publication of "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" (1975), Ashbery's long poems render this interior world so accurately by transmitting such a multitude of deceptively casual musings, like the one above, that the ideas give way to effect: we retain the impression of a human being continually engaging elementary questions about life more than we retain any of the specific questions or answers. Meaning is not forgotten, but, because Ashbery seems always to doubt but never entirely reject the possibility of meaning, we are left with a notion of his continuing uncertainty.

But this is not to say his long poems are afloat, unfixed in a universe of non sequiturs. Most of Ashbery's recent long poems are accessible, though their style can seem at first prohibitively resistant to understanding. Eventually, competent readers can find that the truly enigmatic passages are blended with those of reasonably straightforward language to produce an impression of the conscious mind in alternating periods of perplexity and clarity. And throughout the poem, Ashbery nearly announces his technique as well as his point of view. He is not evasive; he is referential—that is to say, he employs symbolist tools.

Perloff sees symbolist writing as that kind described by Eliot in his call for an objective correlative. In Eliot's words, the "only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding 'an objective correlative'; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion…." Perloff also turns to Auden's claim that a poet may describe the "sacred encounters of his imagination" in terms of something other than the components of that encounter. Surely Perloff is correct in her translation of Eliot's and Auden's poetics, contending that the two High Modernists were committed to a style of writing which renders even the "ineffable" through "concretion of the symbol." Her notion of symbolist writing is nothing new: words signifying discernible referents outside the poem. But focusing on the poet's early verse, Perloff asserts that an Ashbery poem, regardless of length, cuts off "the referential dimension" (266) and that his images usually "have no discernible referents."

For the sake of discussion, then, let us think of the term "symbolist" as nearly synonymous with "referential." Symbolist poetry usually achieves meaning by means of a system of imagery which renders an idea or attitude. In this sense, most poems are symbolist. Those that are not are poems which intentionally sabotage their own grammar in order to call into question conventional poetic processes for communicating. Rimbaud, Stein, Olsen, and even Pound, in certain cantos, practiced variations of such an antisymbolist poetics. Today, while language poets are most actively antisymbolist, their poems are rarely long. (Michael Palmer's "Notes for Echo Lake" [1981] is an exception).

Ashbery's shorter poems are most often antisymbolist in technique, though both long and short have often been incorrectly accused of unnecessary obfuscation, much in the way Gertrude Stein's work was attacked. As Perloff points out, both Stein and Ashbery rise out of the same reformational strain of literature, one which is not primarily symbolist as is most modernist writing. The works of this genre often "seem to have no external referent." The poem is intentionally unclear, "and yet one does keep listening. For the special pleasure of reading a poem like 'These Lacustrine Cities' [Rivers and Mountains] is that disclosure of some special meaning seems perpetually imminent…. As readers, we are thus left in a state of expectancy: just at the point where revelation might occur, the curtain suddenly comes down."

"These Lacustrine Cities" is much like the more recent "Purists Will Object," published in A Wave. The poem's images hint at a logic which continues to evaporate, almost with each subsequent line:

     We have the looks you want:
     The gonzo (musculature seemingly wired to the stars)
     Colors like lead, khaki and pomegranate: things you
     Put in your hair, with the whole panoply of the past:
     Landscape embroidery, complete sets of this and that.
     It's bankruptcy, the human haul,
     The shining, bulging nets lifted out of the sea, and
       always a few refugees
     Dropping back into the no-longer-mirthful kingdom
     On the day someone else sells an old house
     And someone else begins to add on to his: all
     In the interests of this pornographic masterpiece,
     Variegated, polluted skyscraper to which all gazes are
     Pleasure we cannot and will not escape.
     It seems we were going home.
     The smell of blossoming privet
       blanketed the narrow avenue.
     The traffic lights were green and aqueous.
     So this is the subterranean life.
     If it can't be conjugated onto us, what good is it?
     What need for purists when the demotic is built to last,
     To outlast us, and no dialect hears us?

The poem intimates a world of disturbingly radical, almost perverse style, one which privileges the "gonzo," the "pornographic," the "demotic." But beyond the suggestion of this mode of fashion, it is quite difficult to grasp clearly the relationships of images in the poem as well as our own relationship to the poem. How, for instance, does one put "the whole panoply of the past" in one's hair? If the poem is about the innate indecency of civilization or even more particularly about the inhumane aspects of capitalism ("It's bankruptcy …/ On the day someone sells an old house / And someone else begins to add on to his"), what is the relationship between the mercenary "We" of the first line in the first stanza and the nostalgic "we" of the first line in the second? And how could a dialect "hear"?

And so Perloff borrows a term from critic Roger Cardinal and calls works like this "enigma texts." She contends that all the possibilities of meaning generated by this kind of poem "give way to … an 'irreducible ambiguity'—the creation of labyrinths that have no exit." But while we may read one of Ashbery's shorter poems for the pleasurable "state of expectancy" Perloff describes, such a state may not carry us comfortably through all of his longer poems. Indeed, his recent longer poems bring us much closer to "that disclosure of some special meaning" than do his shorter poems. The key is this: in his later long poems Ashbery writes as if he doubts the plausibility of meaning, absolute or relative, and yet he also remains unconvinced about his own doubt. Furthermore, these poems exhibit both nonreferential and referential styles, but clearly privilege the latter, symbolist method. Again, in the long poems of his current phase he favors a symbolist style with which to write about an indeterminate state of existence. His readers must engage his depiction of reality on the chance that it will provide instances of enlightenment and hope. And while Ashbery can seem like an obsessive agnostic, some of his recent long poems, particularly "A Wave," earn a hard won, if temporary, peace of mind in which the questions are either suspended for a time or answers are tentatively proferred.

Before "Self-Portrait" Ashbery's long poems were more enigmatic and more nonreferential than those from "Self-Portrait" on. His long poems have evolved in three distinct phases, moving from the first radically fractured, Cubist, collagist phase to that of the more prosaic, nonreferential phase. This second phase is marked by a newer elegiac tone and a deceptively unexciting grammar. For all their problems, the poems of this second stage are marvelous attempts at stretching language into a more fruitful zone between utter opacity and conventional symbol.

The first important poem of Ashbery's third and current phase is "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror." In "Self-Portrait" Ashbery uses Francesco Parmagianino's strange painting by the same title as an object of meditation. Here, every gesture, every intellectual position holds it own antithetical possibility; every premise is scrutinized by the poet for its likelihood of falsity. The grammar of the long poems of this phase is not always as intentionally self-sabotaging as that of the shorter. It helps the reader to remember that in these Ashbery is considering the ephemerality of experience while also attempting to render the confusion often brought on by that ephemerality. In most of his shorter, more enigmatic poems, readers are usually set randomly adrift at any given point, referentiality having disintegrated in a chaos of pronouns and lost syllogisms. In "A Wave" as in "Self-Portrait," readers oscillate between such a void and a more symbolist terrain with clearer landmarks. In the context of his own canon, Ashbery's suggestion that long poems are "much closer to a whole reality" than shorter poems can be read as an admission that, because of their length, long poems should be grounded by referential, determinate writing—or the reader may simply dismiss the poem as so much endless nonsense. In fact, quantitatively there seems to be far more conventionally discursive writing in these poems than secretive writing. The language virtually achieves what Perloff would have to call "the symbolist."

In "A Wave" there exists for the narrator the assumption that there had been an earlier stage in life which was continually fulfilling, when metaphysical anxieties were unnecessary and the spirit was happily replete. But that time of unexamined childlike confidence was abandoned for an adult self-assessment made difficult by a nearly ceaseless skepticism and an equally skeptical approach to that skepticism. The result is the present tentative self-consciousness he describes, a perpetual state of trustlessness. Accordingly, "A Wave" has two subjects: how to comprehend experience when it seems so ephemeral and how to experience love when it, too, is necessarily evanescent, being only a part of the larger experiential realm.

While "A Wave" begins with several difficult passages, the poem grows increasingly philosophical and accessible, though not committing itself to the subject of love until about a quarter of the way through. Here, Ashbery doesn't so much announce his subject, but rather describes it in passing. First, he is discussing a sense of new purpose:

                   And no special sense of decline
     But perhaps a few moments of music of such tact
        and weariness
     That one awakens with a new sense of purpose….

But, still concerned with this "new sense of purpose," he mentions:

                I am prepared to deal with this
    While putting together notes related to the question of love
    For the many, for two people at once, and for myself
    In a time of need unlike those that have arisen so far.

Thus the poem's intention is declared: the poet will simultaneously discuss twin positives in his life—purpose and love. But of both we can only have some vague understanding. For Ashbery, life occurs, and only rarely are we sensitive to the details of our passing through it, each of us alone in our usual dim state:

     stand with you as you mope and thrash
        your way through time.
     Imagining it as it is, a kind of tragic euphoria
     In which your spirit sprouted.

Because we necessarily must live our lives in the dishevelment of shifting feelings rather than the clarity of confident knowing, we receive life as impression. Each moment continually gives way to the next, being assimilated into a vague supposition based on the past. We cannot constantly compute our positions, and thus Ashbery frequently resorts to the most important word in the poem's lexicon: sense. We retain a sense of life and of ourselves, and very little more.

Sometimes that sense is, indeed, very vague. During such moments, we gain what Ashbery sees as a "sense" of confusion, which he sometimes illustrates with amusing blocks of bewildering logical connections, very much like the shorter poems. These passages seem to be communicating something about the inevitability of quotidian events. Meaning appears to be real, only hidden or just around the corner.

But again Ashbery does not engage in so indeterminate a style for long, and, just as the quotidian can begin to make some sense at times, his verse becomes increasingly clearer. This is not to say that he believes in belief, so to speak, but that his language resorts once more to dealing with incertitude in a comprehensible manner. Inevitably he shifts back to a more understandable poetic language in order to describe the relationship between attempts at categorizing experience and what that experience will actually come to be. Meaning thus lies not in the "crispness" of rational understanding, but in "a density of … opinion" which, because it is not and cannot be carefully calculated, must be a feeling, a "sense" formed of suspended conjecture. The poem consists of a continuing series of Kafkaesque reactions and counterreactions.

     We had, though, a feeling of security
     But we weren't aware of it then: that's
     How secure we were.

Ashbery often uses the words "so" and "and" to propel the poem along against the impediments thrown up by "yet" and "but." Back and forth, the potential contests against the disempowering.

Unlike Stevens, Ashbery is rarely conclusively satisfied; unwilling to forego his "questioning side," he suggests a state of existence in which the processes of the poem continue after the poem's finish until our own demise:

      And so each of us has to remain alone, conscious of
        each other
      Until the day when war absolves us of our
      differences. We'll
      Stay in touch. So they have it, all the time. But all was

Here Ashbery is not only unwilling to forego his circular doubt, but he is also unwilling to finish the poem on purely symbolist terms. "They" is a sudden, inexplicable intrusion, suggesting perhaps "our differences," or former lovers, or more probably the existence of greater random forces which we cannot control.

The quotations above demonstrate that "A Wave" is not a radically fragmented, enigmatic, inaccessible piece of writing. Certainly, many of Ashbery's signature devices appear throughout the poem: the unclear pronoun references, the long sentence fragments, the cleverly misplaced modifiers, the intentional reliance on amorphous, beguiling generalizations. At times, he reverses the process of Eliotic fragmentation by using conventionally logical connectives to link illogically related notions; at other times, he splices nonsensical ideas together by linking them to a single common event. Yet only the opening of the poem is as particularly puzzling as the shorter, purely enigmatic poems. The grammar becomes more conventional and the poem becomes progressively comprehensible as it probes its themes.

Sometime before the publication of "Self-Portrait," Ashbery said that he had been "attempting to keep meaningfulness up to the pace of randomness … I really think meaningfulness can't get along without randomness and that they somehow have to be brought together." "A Wave" is certainly an attempt to do just that: to grant the poem a symbolist logic while also rendering the sudden moments of confusion and incertitude we often encounter in the course of a day, let alone the course of a lifetime. Generally his writing is symbolist when he tells us and enigmatic when he shows us. The lasting effect of this blend is to endow the reader with an impression of a consciousness energized by a desire to question while enervated by a propensity to doubt.

Mutlu Konuk Blasing (essay date Summer 1992)

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SOURCE: "The American Sublime, C. 1992: What Clothes Does One Wear?," in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 31, No. 3, Summer, 1992, pp. 425-41.

[In the following review, Blasing offers favorable assessment of Flow Chart. Drawing parallels to the Romantic poetry of William Wordsworth, Blasing concludes, "Flow Chart is a very entertaining book, which moves us practically to tears."]

Flow Chart is John Ashbery's latest experiment; he continues to do his thing, but he knows better than anyone that experimental techniques play differently in 1992 than in 1962, let alone 1912. "One is doomed, / repeating oneself, never to repeat oneself, you know what I mean?" states his predicament. His oversize, long-lined, book-length poem has all the "avant-garde" markings, but he has no illusions that its formal discontinuities represent cultural opposition:

    What right have you to consider yourself
    anything but an enor-
       mously eccentric though
    not too egocentric character, whose sins of
    omission haven't omit-
      ted much,
    whose personal-pronoun lapses may indeed
    have contributed to
       augmenting the hardship
    silently resented among the working classes? If I
    thought that for
       a minute I'd … yet,
    remembering how you didn't want to get up
    today, how warm
       the bed was and cozy, you
    couldn't really begin with a proletarian, accustomed as they are
       to backbreaking
    toil and so (you'd like to think) don't feel it that
    much. Besides
       they never read Henry James' novels.
    Just for the sake of argument let's say I've never
    done an honest
       day's work
    in my life. It's hardly heartbreaking news, not
       a major concern.

This is an experiment without the authorization of either a political agenda or science, the other traditional appeal of the "new"; "And as for me, sad to say, / I could never bring myself to offer my experiments the gift of objective, scientific / evaluation." Not only do Ashbery's "experiments" play into the system, but their "newness" is positioned as an anachronism. While the poem takes liberties with notions of "poems," by now that is the norm, and Ashbery actually locates his poet as a wanderer "in the halls of the nineteenth century: its exhibits, / talismans, prejudices, erroneous procedures and doomed expeditions": "I must shade my eyes from the light with my hands, the light of the explosion / of the upcoming twentieth century."

Whether Ashbery's "halls" are meant to hold the echoes of Wordsworth or not, Flow Chart may be best read alongside The Prelude. It is an autobiographical poem, recording "the origin and progress" of the powers of the poet's mind—although Ashbery duly registers appropriate suspicions about "progress," "poet," and "mind." It also reviews his published books: "John's report cards." Wordsworth could well be describing Ashbery's project, beginning with the desire "either to lay up / New stores, or rescue from decay the old / By timely interference": drawing out "With fond and feeble tongue a tedious tale" in the "hope" that "I might … fix the wavering balance of my mind"; and offering the "Song," "which like a lark / I have protracted," to the "Friend" as a "gift," though "prepared" under the "pressure of a private grief, / Keen and enduring," in the confidence that "the history of a Poet's mind / Is labour not unworthy of regard." Both poems give a minute account of subjective responses to events, whether cataclysmic or barely registrable by those less "elevated" sensibilities who lack as large a capability of "being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulants." Ashbery's "egotistical" anti-sublime—consumed with "exquisite nitpicking" and putting "too fine a deconstruction" on everything that may or may not have happened to "me," while days, seasons, and decades roll by "outside"—reaffirms that "we moderns have to 'leave our mark' / on whatever we say and do; we can let nothing pass without a comment / of some kind." In other words, despite Ashbery's unrelenting irony, and despite the ironies that become apparent in juxtaposing him with Wordsworth, reading Flow Chart is an experience comparable to nothing so much as to reading The Prelude.

Wordsworth's assumption that "each man's Mind is to herself / Witness and judge" holds for Ashbery: "Nothing is required of you, yet all must render an accounting." Indeed, legalistic terminology of trials, judges, and sentences abounds in his poem. If there is a "private grief" or a private accounting for some real or imagined failing or guilt, we cannot possibly know it, so that everything registers on a "higher" plane as another attempt, complete with its attendant anxieties, to justify the ways of a "Poet's mind." Certain details—the presence of "John," recurrent plays on "Ashes," and vague references to family, sex, mourning, writing, history, and earlier poems—make for an autobiographical drift, which renders Flow Chart more compelling than recent Ashbery books, but as usual he denies us the "specifics" and even apologizes for his lapses: "forgive us / our stitch of frivolity in the fabric of eternity if only so that others / can see how shabby the truth isn't and make their depositions accordingly." We are left with the fact that "This is a poem," for it does meet the minimum requirements of allusions and line breaks: "be one of those / on whom nothing is lost. Organize your thoughts in random lines and, later on / down the road, paginate them." Ashbery's "random lines" do add up to "something like / my autobiography": "I say 'I' / because I'm the experimental model of which mankind is still dreaming, though to myself / I'm full of unworkedout bugs and stagefright." More, "I see I am as ever / a terminus of sorts, that is, lots of people arrive in me and switch directions but no one / moves on any farther; this being, in effect, the end of the line, a branch-line / at that."

Not clearly authorized to indulge in a more autobiographical reading, we must resort to a literary reading of such negative millennialism and trace the fortunes of the humanist subject in postmodern times. "Somebody dust these ashes off, open / the curtains, get a little light on the subject: the subject / going off on its own again," Ashbery seems to plead, and we can only agree, but no such luck; he and we are left with "this mound of cold ashes that we call / for want of a better word the past," which "inflect[s] the horizon," "calling attention to shapes / that resemble it and so liberating them into the bloodstream / of our collective memory." As his autobiographical subject dissolves into a universal subject, our reading is deflected to an academic one, and there are enough allusions and meditations on writing to keep us going. Thus personal experience, self-accounting, and private trials are the subjects of the poem, but Ashbery treats them as irrelevant to the reader, who is nevertheless asked to read it—to consume this product.

This product sells "personal experience"—regrettably incommunicable and perhaps not entirely consequential—and "poetry," which is, regrettably, only a luxury for those who can afford such conspicuous consumption: "the coat I wear, / woven of consumer products, asks you to pause and inspect / the still-fertile ground of our once-valid compact / with the ordinary and the true." If we unravel this a bit, we see that we are asked to tailor Ashbery's "coat" to the canonical tradition, never mind the consumer products. Despite the present straits of the "poet," he is "asking" us to reconsider the same "compact" that Wordsworth, for example, invokes to legitimate Lyrical Ballads: "It is supposed, that by the act of writing in verse an Author makes a formal engagement that he will gratify certain known habits of association … it will undoubtedly appear to many persons that I have not fulfilled the terms of an engagement thus voluntarily contracted. They who have been accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers, if they persist in reading this book to its conclusion, will, no doubt, frequently have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and awkwardness: they will look round for poetry, and will be induced to inquire by what species of courtesy these attempts can be permitted to assume that title." Here is Ashbery: "I can tell you a story about something. The expression will be just right, for it will be adjusted / to the demands of the form, and the form itself shall be timeless though / hitherto unsuspected." Thus

                his literature will have performed its
      by setting you gently down in a new place and
      then speeding off
      you have a chance to thank it. We've got to find
      a new name for
         him. "Writer" seems
      totally inadequate; yet it is writing, you read it
      before you knew
         it. And besides,
      if it weren't, it wouldn't have done the unex-
      pected and by doing
        so proved that it was quite
      the thing to do, and if it happened all right for
      you, but wasn't
         the way you
      thought it was going to be, why still
      that is called fulfilling part of the bargain.

By interweaving Wordsworth and Ashbery at such length, I am suggesting that Ashbery practices his novelties with one eye on tradition. Dressing his "stories" for "the new financial age that offers better reception / to things of the future, like mine," is a marketing strategy, for he is interested in selling: "For a dollar I could put it in the mail to you, / my little tract." This might sell better now than Whitman's "I do not say these things for a dollar" of more than a century ago. Indeed, "To the 'newness' then, all subscribe": "So for / sixteen years I dazzled the constituents with sayings of a country I had never seen; they knew I / raved but thought it must always be so when men dreamed, but my darker / purpose never surfaced." "In fact," Ashbery continues, "we never see all there is to see / which is good for business too: keeps the public returning / these days of swiftly eroding brand loyalty": "such / is the interesting climate we live in." If he has a "darker purpose" that is not merely teased into being by his evasive, marketing strategies, it would be the very old-fashioned one of keeping alive, by keeping it in the dark, a private self.

This, for me, is the pathos of Ashbery's project. Flow Chart confirms the cultural marginalization of "high" poetry by representing itself as a kind of preserve where the subject—the endangered species—may be kept alive. No more an "agent" than a cog in the machine, Ashbery's poet attends to "the obscure reveries of the inward gaze," tirelessly registering the rhythms of his inner life and, just as tirelessly, enumerating the difficulties of writing. And his fashionable coat, woven of consumer products, offers camouflage and better protection than the entirely different "enterprise" of going naked. The intractable nature of the poem—as of any Ashbery text—confirms that poetry does not make any difference, unless, perhaps, it markets difference. "The handwriting on the wall" says "return to your abstractions … life / has no need of you just yet." This knowledge floods the poet with sudden clarity and reaffirms his charge: "I though I should / sharpen my appearance, for that way lies light, lies life, and yes I am / talking about new clothes as well." One must admire Ashbery's ability to have his cake and eat it, too, in these hard times. He keeps telling us that his poem is only about himself and could matter less; but it looks sharp and it pierces. He offers a product, novel in cloth and cut, yet he keeps apologizing that, in substance, it has no cultural function. For the substance he quixotically sets out to preserve comprises the relics of the humanist subject, the "holy remnants of the burnished / mirror in which the Almighty once saw Himself, and wept."

Flow Chart is not merely a parodic simulacrum of a Romantic poem; it has a more serious undercurrent and, I like to think, a real investment in charting the fortunes of the subjective life, public as well as private. Ashbery's poem is how Wordsworth's project sounds today, indistinguishable from the ravings of a mind of "wavering balance." Yet Ashbery is impelled to continue producing it in this way: "I have the feeling my voice is just for me, / that no one else has ever heard it, yet I keep mumbling the litany / of all that has ever happened to me." Similarly, we are impelled to keep reading, not because we expect some ultimate "high" of revelation but for the intermittent "buzz" we get. With no "metaphysical reasons," he goes on doing what he does because he has lost the "formula for stopping," as Jean Baudrillard remarks apropos joggers. After a while we lose the "formula," too, for Flow Chart is amazingly moving—at least for one given to conspicuous consumption. The poem that deploys an avant-garde style markets, after all, an elitist product, and it attracts us because it shows how "poetry" plays today within the larger cultural discursive economies. In Ashbery's words, "You can't / can it and sell it, that's for sure, but it is a commodity, and someday all / will be wiser for it." And, for some "specialists," it plays as a nostalgic preserve, helping alleviate certain anxieties: "I will show you fear in a handful of specialists."

This fearful specialist would like to think, though, that Ashbery remains committed to preserve, "produce," or "enlarge" the capability "of being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulants." That, in Wordsworth's terms, "is one of the best services in which, at any period, a Writer can be engaged; but this service, excellent at all times, is especially so at the present day. For a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind." To keep alive the "discriminating powers of the mind" is, I would argue, Ashbery's "darker purpose," a downright conservative aim that finds models in Wordsworth and James. In other words, I do not buy Ashbery's fashionable "coat"; while Flow Chart is dressed as a pure product of its culture, it is also a conservative critique, which "darker" and "worthy purpose" gives the author the "right to the name of a Poet."

Or, at least, to the "label" of a poet. "Darkness" in Ashbery, early and late, is associated with the personal, "a darkness of one's own." If his writing is designed to resist the erosion of the very idea of the personal, naturally he can't deliver his "message" or give us the clue to decode it. This is the "quite tiny key to success" he "holds[s] in his hand." He can leave behind only "clues … fated not to be found this time," a "trace / of his passing," or a "flicker of ashes in the grate." But here is another irony of his career: "Because in the dark / you knew something and didn't tell it," "the notion / became a battle-cry and soon everybody was trying to disconnect his life and seal it / off, unsuccessfully." He registers an anxiety of influence in reverse, lamenting the appropriation of his stylistic signature—his way of not telling. Since a flow chart diagrams a manufacturing process. Flow Chart is an appropriate title for the autobiography of a poet who keeps processing his personal experience into a mere signifier of what is most personal, so that it becomes cultural or literary currency, a simulacrum, a "guaranteed … label, which lasts forever."

For Flow Chart is more personal than the personal can ever be, not only because our times are so "interesting" but also because life, as Ashbery often reminds us, is a generic proposition, after all; it's anybody's life. So why continue?

     do you keep going next time?
              And I told him for half a dime I'd quit and
     you too, only that's not done, the very
     pillars of our civilization would crumble …
     … we the keepers of the trust … have to
     somehow find the missing key.

But how? "Where is the one who takes out the ashes, / leaves the key behind"? And who would want to be this "one" anyway? What would there be without the ashes? What if "these marginalia … are the substance of the text"? "What / if poetry were something else entirely, not this purple weather / with the eye of a god attached, that sees / inward and outward? What if it were only a small, other way of living?" What if "a pleasant, slightly numbed sense of wonderment" were all the reader was vouchsafed? But who could brush off someone who says, "despite my bluster and my swaggering, / [I] have no real home and no one to inhabit it except you"? Plus, "if I am to be cast off, then / where? There has to be a space, even a negative one, a slot / for me, or does there?" And "Where are the standard bearers? Why / have our values been lost? Who is going to pay for any of this?" Or "Is it that I'm a sort of jerk?" In short, Flow Chart is a very entertaining book, which moves us practically to tears:

         You get A for effort, but the road to hell is
      with good intentions. But I'll take the blight,
      thanks. I'm good at working under pressure,
      as indeed we all must be.

Harriet Zinnes (essay date June 1992)

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6954

SOURCE: "John Ashbery: The Way Time Feels As It Passes," in The Hollins Critic, Vol. XXIX, No. 3, June, 1992, pp. 1-13.

[In the following essay, Zinnes discusses Ashbery's literary career, poetic style, central motifs, and the influence of avant-garde music and art on his work.

Writing about John Ashbery is difficult, not because his work is itself difficult or obscure or elusive. It frequently is not. Yet from the beginning he was a puzzle. In a panel on postmodernism as early as December 1979, the poet David Antin could declare, in seemingly contradictory terms, that the poet "brought grandeur to Pop" and that his poems are "sublime claptrap." Yet the puzzle of John Ashbery can be solved—without perhaps totally eliminating contradictory conclusions, and always bearing in mind what the poet wrote in his collected "art chronicles" (Reported Sightings, 1991): "it is impossible to refute a statement made in a poem; poetry is by nature true and affords blanket protection to anything one wishes to say in it." This of course gets Ashbery completely off the disgruntled critic's hook—and the critic too. Do I have carte blanche? Hm. Yet Ashbery's work is not so disjointed in its effects, its surfaces and meaning that one cannot attempt an explanation. The difficulty lies in the fact that the work is more like the ineffable abstractions characteristic of avant-garde contemporary music (at least the music that was important to Ashbery when he began to publish) rather than to contemporary poetry.

"I think I had learned about art from music," Ashbery once told the writer Richard Kostelanetz. His poetry confirms the statement. Wallace Stevens (despite such critics as Harold Bloom) has influenced Ashbery less than has the composer John Cage (and the music of such composers as Anton Webern and Luciano Berio). Often Ashbery's sounds, especially in his early poems, are noises—the words around him in his environment, the words culled at random from books picked up on the quais of Paris, frequently children's books (such as Beryl and His Biplane). Such cut-up poems are sound collages. His words therefore in such poems are only secondarily words in the usual sense. Precise meanings are simply not the point. Consider his early poem "Europe" that appeared in The Tennis Court Oath (1962). It begins

     To employ her
     construction ball
     Morning fed on the
     light blue wood
     of the mouth
            cannot understand
     feels deeply)

Richard Howard in an early important essay in his Alone With America (1969) summed up the compositional technique that the poet used here as leading to such a "pitch of distraction, of literal eccentricity, that leaves any consecutive or linear reading of his poems out of the question." But in these early poems a "linear reading" was not at all intended because, as Ashbery explained in a 1982 interview, he frequently wrote while listening to classical music on the radio and "occasionally when there are announcements or commercials they get sucked into the poem, as do all kinds of things in my immediate environment; papers that happen to be on my desk at the time, or letters, stray books, magazines." Telephone calls that he will answer while writing may give him an idea. The environment matters. A Cagean mandate. "These things are very important," he said in that interview, "They're the environment that we live in and there's no point in trying to pretend that it's different or should be different." Earlier in 1974 in an interview in the New York Quarterly Ashbery confessed that the poem "Europe," "poems of that sort which are really like automatic poetry … no longer interest me very much." I'd like to quote the extension of that statement because it not only explains why his early technique is no longer valuable to him (though the 1991 Flow Chart evidences some return) but reveals a characteristic Ashbery, never arrogant, never pretentious, certainly rarely the romantic bard, always modest and clearly making no superior claims for poetry except expressing his devotion to it. Here are his remarks:

For instance, the poem "Europe," the long poem in that book, is no longer very close to me. At the time I wrote it I was baffled as to what to do in poetry; I wasn't satisfied with the way my work was going and I felt it was time to just clear my head by writing whatever came into it and that's very much the case with that poem; and I think it helped me along but I don't value it as much as ones I've written since.

It is interesting to see a characteristic example of what Ashbery has written since. Here is a quotation from Flow Chart:

      it looks like a nice day for all this, and I invite
      you to start
         revving up your VCR:
      who knows what may happen? In the meantime,
      look sharp, and
         sharply at what is around you; there is
      always the possibility something may come of
      something, and that
         is our
      fondest wish though it says here I'm supposed
      to say so, not now
      in this place of wood and sunlight, this stable or
         retiring room
         or whatever you want to call it.

Here are the long lines of the later Ashbery with their characteristic colloquialisms, their imagery from popular culture, and their Cagean aesthetic, an aesthetic that he began with and is still adhering to. Cage always admonishes composers, artists, poets, listeners, everyone to be attentive. And here is John Ashbery saying: "look sharp, and sharply at what is around you; there is / always the possibility something may come of something."

Obviously, Ashbery himself soon realized that it was disastrous for him to use words as if they were mere sound containers without equivalents of meaning because he was not writing nonsense verse or concrete poetry or Steinian sound structures. He couldn't really transpose the complete Cagean method, only its aesthetic. That is, he couldn't pretend that verbal sound is equivalent to the sounds, let us say, of the digestive tract that Cage used in his composition tapping intestinal organs for his "music." When Ashbery, however, made his auditory imagination a tool of his own inner universe, sounds worked for him, as in such poems as "Fragment" from the 1970 volume The Double Dream of Spring (strange that he did not include in his Selected Poems of 1985 this mysterious poem that Ashbery calls a love poem,—like all his love poems it probes the imagination and the self). He achieves a similar success in the prose poems in the volume Three Poems (1972), a volume that to me is truly characteristic of his genius. Sounds then become seductive—siren songs, songs to the "beloved," the absolute, the void in a universe that is inner, that is Zen, that joins sound ultimately to ineffable sense.

Here is a passage from the poem "Fragment" that Charles Berger in his essay on the poet in Beyond Amazement (1980) describes as a "remarkable stanza of pure lyric energy" illuminating an inwardness in "a blazing candle of artifice." The stanza I should say is unusual for the poet—it is a ten-line stanza that Ashbery may have used, he tells us, because he was reading the sixteenth-century poet Maurice Scève, who wrote in dizaines. Again, here it is:

    Thus your only world is an inside one
    Ironically fashioned out of external phenomena
    Having no rhyme or reason, and yet neither
    An existence independent of foreboding and sly grief.
    Nothing anybody says can make a difference: inversely
    You are a victim of their lack of consequence
    Buffeted by invisible winds, or yet a flame yourself
    Without meaning, yet drawing satisfaction
    From the crevices of that wind, living
    In that flame's idealized shape and duration.

Ashbery's universe, his world, is "an inside one," a daytime that is "never to be defined." Ashbery's center is search, a hope of knowing that is down to zero. His words are "weightless," and time, one of the poet's major themes, is to the poet always ambiguous, particularized in a quotidian that is more like dream ("whispers out of time"). John Ashbery affirms in his work, yes, affirms, "an affirmation that doesn't affirm anything." Such a world in a poem can only be there, within the sounds of the poems. Sounds that are not aleatoric, collages, sound structures, but sounds that are equivalents of this Zen state—affirmative only as they do not reach definition—sounds that evoke a "quiet," absolute time, the void.

Ashbery, therefore, is not trying to name. He gives up on that traditional task of the poet. You cannot "name" what you are doing, he says. Here, he is saying, here it is today, rather perplexing of course, with "crucial" moments experienced but never understood, but somehow all is rather pleasant. Of course there's been a "hitch somewhere," but in a "half-baked kind of way" whatever is out there, all external phenomena, all activity released by and turning again to the self add up to a "cosmic welter of attractions" [my italics]. The essentiality of existence is a put-on, not for us to unmask. The "real thing" is "colorless and featureless," Ashbery says over and over again, a belief that accounts for the imprecision of his surfaces, the frequent lack of reference points, his offhand manner, his conscious use of the banal and the cliché. Yet the real thing comes from "primal energy." Still, as Peter Schjedahl once said to me (or did he write this somewhere?) what Ashbery is saying may not be understood but whatever it is it is about growth, spiritual matter, the Zen thing. And that's it. That it cannot be defined yet sensed (in the meaning of sense as that which is denied in the word nonsense) becomes the ineffable quality of the verse, the music of Ashbery's lines.

The publication of Three Poems (1972) was a culmination. Here his disquieting meditations discovered their own music. He had achieved a brilliant success. What he had to say, that is, what he was saying that he could not say, was snugly couched in the music of his prose. Consider the following passage:

Gazing out at the distraught but inanimate world you feel that you have lapsed back into the normal way things are, that what you were feeling just now was a novelty and hence destined to disappear quickly, its sole purpose if any being to light up the gloom around you sufficiently for you to become aware of its awesome extent, more than the eye and the mind can take in…. And you turn away from the window almost with a sense of relief, to bury yourself again in the task of sorting out the jumbled scrap basket of your recent days, without any hope of completing it or even caring whether it gets done or not…. At this point a drowsiness overtakes you as of total fatigue and indifference; in this unnatural, dreamy state the objects you have been contemplating take on a life of their own, in and of themselves. It seems to you that you are eavesdropping and can understand their private language. They are not talking about you at all, but are telling each other curious private stories about things you can only half comprehend, and other things that have a meaning only for themselves and are beyond any kind of understanding.

Obviously what Ashbery is saying here—or anywhere else for that matter—is not particularly deep or philosophically rewarding (philosophy is never the task of a poet). Ashbery could say, as John Cage did in Silence: "I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry." The very goal of Zen (but Ashbery's kind of Zen, I believe, is only momentarily assumed and is probably very unorthodox), is inarticulateness, a very special kind of inarticulateness. The world's body of the Zen poet is the animal in the forest. The poet looks up and it is just THERE. Nothing to write home about, but plenty to write poems about: "the major question that revolves around you, your being here." And if Ashbery's poems are about anything, they are about the "permanent now … in whatever shape seemed expedient for living the next few crucial moments into a Future without controls." Here is a poet, therefore, whose only controlling belief is in "the next few crucial moments into a Future without controls." Even when the poet uses astrological signs such as the Tarot card figures in "The New Spirit" in Three Poems he is not demonstrating an interest in the occult. With characteristic wit (and Ashbery is so frequently funny) he had explained to the New York Quarterly interviewer why he lacked such an interest. "The occult is not mysterious enough."

Ashbery is really very rational. This poet who seems so mysterious as he coolly admits to the unmitigating uncertainties that each moment in life presents (and it is such "crucial moments," whether in the poet's surroundings or in his own mind that provide the substance of the poems—the result of what the critic Marjorie Perloff would call a poetics of indeterminacy) is actually a declarer of the common. Moments can bring anything, after all. But quite simply, as Ashbery writes in Flow Chart:

      Other pleasures are folding the pillow and
      gazing mournfully into
        the face of the electric clock
      when everything springs apart quite naturally
      and scrawled
        forms of people are seen pacing the square in

It is all so common! But, of course, says Ashbery, with his usual dry humor: "everything springs apart quite naturally."

Is this cool and rational Ashbery the result of his being brought up on a farm? John Ashbery was born in Rochester. New York, on July 28, 1927, and lived in the small town of Sodus, near Lake Ontario, where his father was a fruit farmer. Dinitia Smith, who managed to have a long interview with the reserved poet, published in the New York Magazine of May 20, 1991, was able to elicit characteristic responses from the poet that bear repeating. She writes:

Ashbery was at first an extroverted child who loved to be with his father on the farm. Then, when Ashbery was four, his brother Richard was born, and Ashbery grew melancholy. Richard became the star of the family, sharing Chester Ashbery's love of the outdoors. "My father was disappointed in me. My father favored him, and I understood."

Ashbery's maternal grandfather, Henry Lawrence, was a distinguished physicist and professor at the University of Rochester. And the poet's mother, unlike many women of her generation, had a college degree. "She had a tremendous reverence for my grandfather," Ashbery says.

"He was a sort of patriarch. He was very cultivated. He knew Greek and Latin. My father was jealous of his ascendancy." From the beginning, Ashbery was caught in a tug-of-war between his father and grandfather, whom he adored.

It is significant that the poet went to live with his grandparents in Rochester when he was a young child and later spent weekends and holidays there. It was his grandfather's library that led to his discovery of literature, and even his interest in painting was encouraged. He was given art lessons. What a "crucial moment," for Ashbery later would become an important international art critic. He was the art critic of the European edition of the New York Herald Tribune, Paris, 1960–65, and of the Art International, Lugano, Switzerland. He was editor of Art and Literature, Paris, from 1963–66, and became executive editor of Art News from 1965 until 1972. Later, in 1978, Ashbery became the art critic at New York Magazine and later still at Newsweek. But Ashbery like his grandfather was also a distinguished professor (of English, of course) at Brooklyn College. Because of a $250,000 five-year grant from the MacArthur Foundation he was able to leave Brooklyn College and teach only once a week at Bard College.

Money early on was a problem. It was for the lack of it that he became an art critic in Paris in 1960, following in the steps of another American poet, Ezra Pound, who, when in London and needing funds, began to write art criticism. Pound, who was an advocate, a propagandist for the new British art, was more strident, more blatantly subjective. Ashbery, on the other hand, was cool, knowledgeable, and generous-minded. When he is unsympathetic to an artist, such as Andy Warhol or Toulouse Lautrec, he never snarls as Pound did but describes the work, considers what makes him "indifferent" to it, all in a very amiable way. This is not to say, by the way, that the art criticism of Pound was not significant. It certainly was. Ashbery had the advantage of writing at the time of such formidable critics as Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, and the brilliant Meyer Schapiro. It took more than fifty years for Pound's art criticism to be collected, but John Ashbery's appeared in 1991 in a collection called Reported Sightings, published by Harvard University Press with fine colored reproductions and containing work that appeared as late as 1987.

Both Pound's and Ashbery's art criticism say a great deal about them as poets. Pound, who was the theorist for the Vorticists, the British Cubists, would never have belittled the art of the eccentric poet-painter William Blake as Ashbery does with this wonderful witty remark: Blake's painting, Ashbery said, "is one of the glories of English literature." Pound, who after all lived at a different time, saw parallels between the techniques in painting and poetry and wrote, "I would liken Guido's cadence to nothing less powerful than line in Blake's drawing." Yet clearly cadence is not line. Energy is a different matter. When Ashbery says of Braque's work that "its ambiguity is that of reality," he may be unconsciously explaining his own manipulation of ambiguity in his poetry, but he is not making a parallel of the techniques of the two arts. He is still considering Braque's perception as an artist of his vision of the world.

The more sophisticated relation between the arts that Ashbery observes can be seen in his comment on Jean Hélion (whom he considers "one of the finest painters of any kind today"—i.e., in 1961): "He is a poet's painter, as Ponge (who has written on Hélion) is a painter's writer. Both have invented a new kind of description, poetic without being rhapsodic, which treats the outside of things as though it were their soul, and in which the avoidance of all metaphysical temptations becomes itself a kind of religion." This last statement could be used to describe Ashbery's poetry as well as Hélion's painting. Ashbery looked closely at the objects around him. The "reported sightings" in his poetry were not decorated with the heavy musings of a metaphysician. The mystery lay in the objects just being THERE. What he says about the paintings of his friend and artist, Joan Mitchell, whom he greatly admires, could again be said to apply to the way he works, not with paint of course, but with language. As Ashbery has said in Reported Sightings, and all poets know: "Poets when they write about other artists always tend to write about themselves." What he says then about Mitchell says a lot about himself:

A persistent shape, like a helmet or a horse's skull, doesn't give any clue to what the painter intended, except in one painting where it suggests dark masses of trees at the edge of a river. Elsewhere there are antagonisms and sparrings between shapes whose true nature is left unstated, and sudden lashings of caked or viscous pigment whose inspiration is again no longer in nature but in something in the nature of paint, or of the feeling that takes hold of a painter when he attacks it. Yet there is never any sense of transition; we move in and out of these episodes, coherent or enigmatic ones, always with a sense of feeling at home with the painter's language, of understanding what she is saying even when we could not translate it.

This is a passage that is characteristic of the critical prose of John Ashbery. He is never vague; he never hedges. His pen is as sharp as his discerning eye. It is interesting (to turn to the content of the passage) that the poet says nothing about the gestural aspect of the work of this Abstract Expressionist, the unconscious manipulations of the brush so much written about by those who stress the surrealist aspect of the Abstract Expressionists. It was not automatism that Ashbery favored in surrealism. "The automatic gestural painting of Pollock and Klein and their contemporaries looks different from the patient, minute, old-master technique of Tanguy," he notes.

Understandably, then, he loves the work of de Chirico. Is it because objects are so clearly defined even as they are so strangely juxtaposed? I must mention that Ashbery admires another aspect of the painter Joan Mitchell, for like the poet, the painter "does not talk much about her own work, perhaps not out of reticence, but because the paintings are meaning and therefore do not have a residue of meaning which can be talked about." Surely that last statement relates to his own poetry. He does not like to talk about what his poetry means. The poetry, to Ashbery, is the meaning. Words, after all, to the poet "treat the outside of things as though it were their soul."

This emphasis on the "outside of things" explains his attitude toward Minimal Art and particularly his attitude toward Brice Marden, whose 1975 survey at the Guggenheim Museum led to the artist's international fame. What the artist was showing were his masterly monochrome canvases but even those canvases evoked subtle feelings of color and light. John Ashbery, writing in 1972 about the artist even before the Guggenheim show (and of course before the current show of the "Cold Mountain" paintings of 1988–91 at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York City, through June 21), saw that despite the artist's concentration on the monochrome he was creating not abstractions but luminous objects "for the senses." Ashbery wrote, in part:

Appearances to the contrary, his art is not negative minimal but positive phenomenal; it is not an abstraction but an object made by and for the senses…. Some of his colors can't even be described, let alone paraphrased…. Each seems to be the product of every color on Marsden's palette except one: and although these colors have left no visible traces of themselves, they nevertheless burn insidiously in the noncolor that has replaced them. To create a work of art that the critic cannot even begin to talk about ought to be the artist's chief concern: Marsden has achieved it.

Ashbery is indifferent to schools and fashion. He can admire the work of Nell Blaine as well as that of Brice Marden. Early on he praised those fresh, sensuous colors of the lively palette of Blaine, who was an early friend of the poet. He certainly understood the stages in her development. In 1986, he wrote that the painter "long ago moved on from the Constructivist abstraction of her early career, when Hélion and Leger … incited her toward a geometrical painting that looks less orthodox and more casual than much American abstract painting of the time. It was only natural, no doubt, that she would eventually move on to figuration, since nature in its liveliness and unpredictability is already latent in her abstractions. Yet the early disciples subsist in her work today, which is never 'impressionistic' even when trying to capture the subtleties of mist-shrouded mountains…. The sensuality in these works is backed up by a temperament that is crisp and astringent, which is as it should be, since even at its most poetic, nature doesn't kid around." How Ashberyan that realistic, sharply observed, that unromantic understanding of what's out there: "even at its most poetic, nature doesn't kid around."

What is baffling about John Ashbery is his ability to separate his experience with the visual arts from the content of his poetry. There is very little reference to art in his poems. Even his visual imagery is more metaphor than image. With Ashbery the visual dissipates into the elusive, into faded moments without the dimension of time. Events therefore exist simultaneously. Without time in its usual sense, a demarcation of past, present, and future, Ashbery's events can be occurring all at once—they have been, they are, and they will be. It is all a projection anyway. Nothing is—certainly nothing as static as a visual image. Nothing is, and at the same time, everything is—all at once. In one of his most memorable poems (much anthologized), "The Instruction Manual," in one of his best volumes, Some Trees (1956) (a volume of the Yale Series of Younger Poets, so casually introduced by W. H. Auden), the poet is enormously local, visual, referential in his treatment though the intention of the particularities is to evoke dream, even romance. The poem contains half a dozen little stories that the persona makes up about "dim Guadalajara. City of rose-colored flowers," as he tries to escape from the "press of having to write the instruction manual"—a manual on the use of a new metal. The description is precise, visual, delicate as the poet conjures up in his revery the city of colored houses, young lovers, an aged mother, fanning herself with a palm leaf fan, yearning for her son, the promenaders, the marketplace, the men selling hats and swatting flies, the delicious public library with its shades of pale green and beige. In a much later poem in his 1975 volume the poet knows that even to arrive in a dream city is to be "wasted with eternal desire and sadness":

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

A major poem having its source in art is "Self-Portrait In a Convex Mirror" in the volume of that title (1975). Yet the poem starts but hardly remains with the portrait by the Renaissance painter Parmigianino. The poem begins:

     As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
     Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
     And swerving easily away, as though to protect
     What it advertises.

The poet seems carefully to describe the portrait but because his purposes are tangential, not referential, not descriptive, the portrait almost immediately becomes not object but turning off point toward (as he writes in the poem "Hopo' My Thumb" in this same volume) "our selves concaved into view."

So it is "our selves" that is really the subject, but "our selves" with Ashbery is the "I," the "you," the "he"—all forms of the self in these quest poems, for it is always "I" and the other, who are both separate and the same. That strange gesture in the portrait, therefore, "thrust at the viewer / And swerving easily away," is "your gesture"

     … which is neither embrace nor warning
     But which holds something of both in pure
     Affirmation that doesn't affirm anything.

This portrait that is Francesco Parmigianino, that is the poet, that is you, that is he, is the mirror into the mirror of "self-reflexiveness," as David Shapiro calls it in his excellent analysis of the poem in his John Ashbery: An Introduction To The Poetry. But there is nothing triumphantly narcissistic in this self-reflexiveness. "One would like to stick one's hand / Out of the globe, but its dimension, / What carries it, will not allow it." The portrait is fixed, a stasis. Yet in the experience of the making of it, there was action, in a way a very banal action. Ashbery quotes Vasari's description of the portrait's beginnings:

     … Francesco one day set himself
     To take his own portrait, looking at himself for that purpose
     In a convex mirror, such as is used by barbers …
     He accordingly caused a ball of wood to be made
     By a turner, and having divided it in half and
     Brought it to the size of the mirror, he set himself
     With great art to copy all that he saw in the glass.

But when, as the poet relates it, "in the silence of the studio" Francesco lifted "the pencil to the self-portrait," when even as he drew and "many people came and stayed a certain time," when "those voices in the dusk" became "memories deposited in irregular / Clumps of crystals," what became of those experiences, Ashbery asks the painter, that "became part of you"?

     … Whose curved hand controls,
     Francesco, the turning seasons and the thoughts
     That peel off and fly away at breathless speeds
     Like the last stubborn leaves ripped
     From wet branches? I see in this only the chaos
     Of your round mirror which organizes everything
     Around the polestar of your eyes which are empty.
     Know nothing, dream but reveal nothing.

Art that began in mundane movements, achieved its mastery, and ended with the artist, having organized everything in his "chamber" for the portrait, knowing and revealing nothing. The artist or the poet creates and then is left with "eyes which are empty." Is art or poetry achieving its fixity, its certainty, only to end in a final uncertainty, in death itself—that land of unknowing, in the portrait, in the poem? Once it was love that "tipped the scales but now is shadowed, invisible / Though mysteriously present, around somewhere." Now even daytime is "nondescript, never-to-be-defined." But we do know something, nothing very startling:

     … All we know
     Is that we are a little early, that
     Today has that special, lapidary
     Todayness that the sunlight reproduces
     Faithfully in casting twig-shadows on blithe

Of course you can't live in a poem, a museum—"And we must get out of it even as the public / Is pushing through the museum now so as to / Be out by closing time. You can't live there." No, you can't merely live in the museum, and even Parmigianino, Ashbery tells us, must have realized that his very portrait never actually achieved what he himself had wanted. What is there then? "Daily activity"? "To be serious about sex / Is perhaps one way," and then there is the philosophy, the ideologies one lives by, but "Each person / Has one big theory to explain the universe / But it doesn't tell the whole story." Whatever is the answer? And it is not Steinian. Ashbery, who now becomes perilously near to being an advocate of suicide (or does he?), in the agony of the predicament, writes:

     Therefore I beseech you, withdraw that hand,
     Offer it no longer as shield or greeting,
     The shield of a greeting, Francesco:
     There is room for one bullet in the chamber.

Is the bullet to be in the painted chamber or in the chamber of a gun? Is suicide the answer? The mirror then won't provide a knowing portraiture? The mirror is then transformed. but it is a hideous transformation of the mirror, the major vehicle of the poem. The poet notes that he has seen the city: "it is the gibbous / Mirrored eye of an insect"—so trivial, yet so monstrous, that "gibbous / Mirrored eye of an insect." And all there is left "here and there, in cold pockets / Of remembrance, whispers out of time." So that the poet begins with a portrait painted by a sixteenth-century artist in a convex mirror, places himself in that mirror only to try to break through "that globe," but in the attempt questions the very making of any art. Shapiro considers that "it might be said that the poem finally admits no self-portraiture except the portraiture of a text, a text like a painting." In such a case, the text may remain, but only "here and there, in cold pockets / Of remembrance, whispers out of time."

I have described this poem at some length because, it seems to me, to hold much of what is central to the work of Ashbery. Time, the imagination, poetry, self and the other, loss, love, death,—these are the motifs of Ashbery (and I purposely use a musical term). In the poet's recent interview with Dinitia Smith he admitted that one way to read his poetry is to think of it as "music," as if his words were a musical composition, and he added: "Words in proximity to one another take on another meaning. What you hear at a given moment is a refraction of what's gone before or after." But these surface motifs can only be understood—or heard—in that flow of sound, that movement of the language, the interweaving of vowel and consonant creating a present, a present moment, the only moment in a time that is seductive as it moves musically on and on, as the poet notes momentary experience within time's flow, the only consolation of these "whispers" that are "out of time."

Isn't it likely that the poet named his last book Flow Chart (1991) because he is so attracted to the flow of time—and to the business and language of contemporary life, for "flow chart" is a contractor's schedule for his painters, electricians, etc., who have to know the sequence of the tasks they have to perform in their jobs. The job requires a certain time. It is a fixed time but because there are always so many contingencies—workers become ill, machinery breaks down, parts are not delivered—the flow chart is interrupted by the random emergency. In his own "flow chart" miscalculations do not merely delay the job of simply getting on, they lead to "the more terrible realization," as the poet had even noted in "The System" in Three Poems, "of reconciling their own ends with the cosmos." But in Flow Chart Ashbery is much more cynical, his wit is more sharp-edged, but happily there is plenty of it. Beneath his skepticism ("the truth, if there ever could be such a thing") is a deep-seated awareness of the terror of our times.

      We live in an age when terror
     opens like breadfruit and one must pick and choose—the seeds
          and proverbs just
     aren't that numerous. Everybody must vote. Everybody's vote
          be accepted into the
     tilting radio tower that is collapsing in one's own best
          interest in one
     dark swoop of mingled horror and relaxed apprehension….

And if there is no horror, there is a "feeling of emptiness" that keeps "turning up like a stranger." Or incessant despair. What to do—"No place to put my despair. Never mind, we'll unpack it later." This kind of black humor is ever present in this series of long poems. The poet always rebounds, however; becomes his usual calm, accepting self. It is because he accepts the contradictions, the simultaneity of horror and pleasure (not necessarily within the experience of the same person). He concedes:

     so history constantly dwindles, although one can still feel
        remarkably fit and well-adjusted
     to life in an era more decadent than anything that has preceded
        it … that anyone should have to die
     so that we may stay on here, sodden but alive, fortunate
     to be able to contemplate our mortality from a distance
        amid kindness
     and late imperial emblems, golden dregs of another civilization
     than the one we gulped down just a short time ago.

Ashbery won't allow the tragic note. Whether it is the threat of death, recognition of brutal imperial wars, personal loss, Ashbery brushes it all off, becomes casual, playfully utters cliches and wonderful one-liners: "Twenty centuries is too much." There is no theological questioning. He goes on with the journey of life, a "journey" that "flows past us like ice chunks." Ice chunks! Not exactly reassuring, but he tells it as he sees it—and endures, ready for the next small pleasure that yields "a pleasant, slightly numbed sense of wonderment."

This is a book that is very New York City. "It seems," he writes as only a realistic, knowledgeable New Yorker can, "only yesterday / that one could find cheap walkup apartments in the East 50s." But what to do about it all? He can only return to his Cagean attentiveness and urge with his usual humor:

     … Meanwhile, be one of those
     on whom nothing is lost. Organize your thoughts in random lines
        and, later on
     down the road, paginate them. You'll see bluebells and cowslips
        on every hill; even
     dragonflies will have become a thing of wonder, as long
     as you don't get too close, and let water run through it all….
     As long as we're on this planet
     the thrill never ceases. Even a garage can be a propitious place.

And love, what about love? Ashbery says that all his poems are about love. In this volume death certainly seems obtrusive, but in a way here and in all of the volumes the poems are love songs but with the lover absent because the lover and the beloved are one—another aspect of the interchangeability of pronouns in the poet's world.

The "beloved," as Ashbery uses the term, is the universal principle, the cosmic mystery that is there in its essential affections but still eludes us. In the last section of Three Poems called "The Recital," the poet comments that "emotional happiness blossoms only once," and we are daily fighting "the hydra-headed monster of apathy." It is the stillness that Ashbery is battling or trying to understand because for him it has not yet turned into the true meditator's void. So that in one sense Ashbery has not reached his "beloved," which is apathy, the void, toward which his muted, seductive sounds, his siren songs, are drifting.

Even sex, especially in Flow Chart, seems beside the point. He says there: "I now … / have come belatedly to realize that sex has very little to do with any of it, / that is directly, except insofar as it makes you do something you hadn't thought about / because it brought you to a place you hadn't thought of visiting, / some quiet corner of a garden, unnoticed before, whose perfection of design / no longer seems a threat, / but rather a greeting instead." The absence of the "sensual" lover in the poems (despite Ashbery's occasional welcoming of sensuality in a kind of abstract way) explains much in the poet's work.

There is love of the world, the "other," but since the "you's," the "I's," the "he's" are all forms of the self in these quest poems, there is really no love partner creating fire or tension in the works. As a result, there is little tension, little drama as one ordinarily feels it in a lyric or even in a meditative poem of tradition. In a way, the poems are all love songs with the lover absent because the lover and the beloved are one. Absence, therefore, becomes one of the motifs of the poems. Absence is implied, for example, in his characteristic use of ellipsis, what he calls "this leaving-out business" in "The Skaters." Absence is not, however, the lack of presence, for in what Richard Howard has called Ashbery's "poetics of continuity and encirclement" presence is the central ingredient of absence. In "The Skaters," the poet notes:

      the carnivorous
     Way of these lines is to devour their own nature, leaving
     Nothing but a bitter impression of absence, which as we know
       involves presence, but still
     Nevertheless these are fundamental absences, struggling to
       get up and be off themselves.

Absence, therefore, necessarily involving presence, is one of Ashbery's important motifs, another one of the contradictions that the poet memorializes, for it is not the world's ambiguities that the poet responds to but its contradictions existing side by side—a condition in the world which to the poet is equivalent to inevitable failure on every level of life. As he says in Flow Chart, "Isn't it all going to be a fiction / anyway, and if so, what does it matter where we decide to settle down?"

The contradictions are not Hegelian, not Marxist. There are no opposing forces. Contradictions are—and in being lie still: "Whatever was, is, and must be," Ashbery writes. His quiet music is the poetic equivalence of this stillness. It is in fact the seductive musical element in Ashbery's poetry that makes it live. It is a seduction urged on by an uncanny music, a rhythmical seduction that relates his work to Eros—the only Eros in his work, for, as he says in "Fantasia on 'The Nut-Brown Maid'" in Houseboat Days, even love is no "cause for self-congratulation" and in the "living picture" [my italics] that is life,

         You get around this as though
     The eternally revised geography of spring meant
     Something beyond its own sense of exaltation….

Since essentially all is "stillness," "zero," the flow of time rushing forward and staying still as the Red Queen implied (and Ashbery reminds us), the beloved too is both here and not here, and therefore can be embraced only in memory, or in the moment that has passed: "We were walking / All along toward a door that seemed to recede / In the distance and now is somehow behind us shut," the poet writes in the last named poem. Even sensuality throbs toward what Ashbery calls "nostalgia," and the present moment is all and nothing, is absence as well. Such poetry is flux and stasis. Such a poetry has the music of the silence of no time—not the "no time" of the Keatsian persuasion but the "no time" of the Einsteinian revolution. Ashbery knows time is standing still or at least in its rushing forward is rushing backwards head on. "How wonderful the fields are," Ashbery writes. What else is there to say? Is it not all attractive—especially if one knows enough "not to insist, to keep sifting a mountain of detritus / indefinitely in search of tiny yellow blades of grass"?

Evelyn Reilly (review date Fall 1992)

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3402

SOURCE: "Afloat," in Parnassus, Vol. 17, No. 2, Fall, 1992, pp. 40-51.

[In the following review, Reilly offers tempered praise for Flow Chart. According to Reilly, Flow Chart represents "an endless flow of disrupted ruminations, literary fragments, pseudo-conversations, pieces of argument, and other language objects, inviting us to look for patterns but not guaranteeing that there are any."]

At a time when all the big themes—the gods, the hero, the artist-hero, truth, the imagination, the past redeemed, the utopian dream—are definitely lowercase, it would seem to require a certain hubris to write a very long poem. Yet John Ashbery's new book-length poem, Flow Chart, fills its 216 pages unabashed. Innocent of themes and unencumbered by the mandates of coherence and unity, this poem can be accused, at most, of the quantitative hubris of a journal kept for decades. It is, in fact, characterized by a qualitative humility, if the Ashberyan refusal to "mean" can be described as such.

Perhaps, as suggested by its title, Flow Chart is less a long poem than a diagram or chart, a grid laid down over an endless flow of disrupted ruminations, literary fragments, pseudo-conversations, pieces of argument, and other language objects, inviting us to look for patterns but not guaranteeing that there are any. This grid could have been laid down over any segment of the flow, since its boundaries and center are arbitrary. It marks out big squares of language only provisionally, for the purposes of observation.

The flow being charted is distinctly aquatic—sky-reflecting, weather-inflected, and littered with the detritus of daily life on the banks. Bobbing along on this surface, the reader cannot but feel the tug of some of the most ancient (and modern) conceits about time and bodies of water, especially when lines like the following float by:

       Sad grows the river god as he oars past us
     downstream without our knowing him …
                     … just as the plaintive sound
     of the harp of the waves is always there as a backdrop
     to conversation and conversion …

As good postmodern pilgrims, however, we exercise restraint, consider these "appropriations," and do not look to the depths.

Meanwhile, there is an enormous amount of talk going on. Someone has cast a net out into the ambient language and is hauling it all in—truncated tales of childhood incidents, accounts of travels to tropical places, memories of high school, bits of dialogue out of Grade B movies (cowboy movies preferred), self-help platitudes, somebody's legal problems:

                   … No one can plead ignorance,
     and any other plea-bargain seems out of the question, though my
     backers will tell you otherwise….

lyrical expansions inspired by nature:

                  Surely the last tragedy will be enough
     and the wind must drop, and it does; a single leaf falls circling,
     alights on the water's swiftly moving mirror as
     the chorus picks up on hope
     in the black promise facing us….

moments of mock epic:

    Then the men began to speak in unison: why not sacrifice something
    ordinary, such as a hairnet …
    Soon all the animals acclaimed the victor, still in bed with pilgrims,
    with the wine of defeat, and easygoing, like the hero he never had
      the wisdom
    to set out to be. And the line of supplicants led down to some
      graceless bushes
    on fire, for virtue wears many masks….

literary pastiche:

              … What is this? A frigid sense
       of isolation, tarnished beyond knowledge? Yes, and the others tell
       it differently, and their version too is the truth, or it is truthful.
       … I hear America snowing….
             As on a darkling strand when the weather improves a bit,
       there was a little more to be seen than was apparent at first. The
          groan of pebbles
       lugged back and forth by the undertow, which at first seemed
          temporary and quickly
       turned out to be eternal wasn't made to displease me, no more than
       the hanks of public seaweed deposited at intervals that might well
          have been
       predetermined …

And, in addition, there are passages of what this reader thinks of as the Ashberyan "high incomprehensible":

                   but since charm can never
     be quite rinsed from these bones it befits us to go along with it,
        congratulate it
     at last for having had something to say and not said it, as torrents
        frazzle a canyon
     without contributing to its demise unless one chooses to consider
     slow processes that score even the cosmic mind at rarest intervals,
        and superficially;
     secure in the adding up of all things
     into a block of hay from which no strand is permitted to extrude.

Reading all this is somewhat like engaging in a very long one-sided conversation with a stranger and not being able to decide whether he is the most brilliant person one has ever met, or simply psychotic. (I was reminded of conversations I had in the early 1970s with a physicist-drug dealer, who, I was convinced, was insane, but whose erratic lyricisms about subatomic particles were interspersed with insistences that the properties of the silicon molecule would bring computers into the homes of every American.)

It is, of course, this collagist's taste for discontinuity, exacerbated by the presence of false syntactical connectives, such as the "as" and "unless" in the passage quoted above, that makes for the famous "difficulty" of Ashbery (about whose brilliance and sanity I have no doubts). And it is interesting how different it is to negotiate this difficulty in a very long poem than in the shorter ones. For while it might be possible to explicate the shorter poems in some conventional way if one were perversely impelled to do so, the reader of Flow Chart really has no choice but to give up the struggle for comprehension as we know it and let the flow of language take over. This induces a kind of reading more like drifting than swimming.

Such a shift in poetic initiative from "ideas" in the poet's mind to something generated by the very nature of "language" itself has been one goal of an avant-garde project for poetry traceable at least back to Mallarmé, carried forward by the Dadaists, and embraced today by the language poets as well as by French-influenced academic literary criticism. This shift is also implicit, if less radically demanded, in definitions of poetry that emphasize its density, compression, and thus "opaqueness," relative to the "transparency" of expository prose. In other words, expository prose disappears as you read it, whereas the material presence of poetry and poetic prose cannot (or should not) be escaped. From this point of view, Flow Chart is exemplary. Scrupulously maintaining its hard, impenetrable surface of language, it provides few openings for a fall into mere comprehension.

Indeed, this extraordinary surface itself becomes the central experience of the poem. The discontinuities that loom so large in Ashbery's shorter poems, each seemingly asking for comprehension, each foiling comprehension in its unique way, in Flow Chart almost disappear, becoming only a small repeating pattern within a larger seamlessness. Cumulatively created, this paradoxical smoothness is sustained in a masterly exercise of refus de signifier or, if one prefers the language of the so-called New York school, of "keeping the surface up."

For all that attention to surface, the invoking and immediate dismantling of images and the incorporation of "anti-artistic" elements invite comparisons of Ashbery's work with that of American painters about whom he has written; for all the hoopla about the word taking on the plasticity of a medium such as paint, and the affinities of the New York poets with the New York school of painting—the visual quality of Flow Chart is much less important than the aural.

Anyone who has heard Ashbery read his work may wonder how it is that this poet with the charming, but unprepossessing delivery could have been endowed with one of the great ears of our time. Yet it is sound that seduces one into section after section of Flow Chart:

      Hours, years later, we were together.
      The moon unbarred its hold, the thickness of brambles was
      just in time to prevent the closing of the door as if by magic …
      I had
      many ties to the region. And yes, life has a way of sidling
        on in rain-slick afternoons
      like this as though nothing were amiss …

Ashbery's control over this sound is complete—whether over a mildly ironic passage of rather grand iambics, or the flatnesses of a disjointed vernacular, or the blatant pleasures of a double sestina. There is something of the aging virtuoso here, flourishing skills that have been deliberately abandoned rather than lost.

If Ashbery can be accused of being a tease, it is because of his alternating blandishments of ravishing, "beautiful" music with deliberately deflating, "antiliterary" sounds. His use of the vernacular is particularly interesting because it is so uncontaminated by the wish that this language were other than it is:

                   … O what awful thing are they doing now?
        What make-believe? Idiotic proposals are
        advanced, then they blab
        it won't work. It doesn't work. Not that anyone is what I would
        call conceited, or
        outgoing either, I guess….

This tone, which can be so annoying because so familiar, embarrasses us because it does not conform to the kind of vernacular we are currently comfortable with in poetry—primarily a sentimentalized ethnic or working-class speech, or a stylized "earnestness." In fact, it is reading Ashbery that enables one to hear how mannered, how "literary," how "high," even, these have become.

The process of exorcising dead "poetic" language requires a particularly vigilant ear. While we may think that Duchamp or the Beats, or whoever, put the notion of "high" art (and language) to bed for good, each generation's "honest" or "vernacular" or "authentic" reencircles itself with the halo of "art" before we know it, becoming a new "high" language that needs to be secularized once again. (This may have been part of what Frank O'Hara had in mind when he warned himself against "nostalgia for the avant guard."

Again and again while reading Ashbery, we confront our own squeamishness about what does not sound "poetic":

                   … Arts & leisure—80 bucks! As quiet as my
      contentment is the voice at my shoulder; make it over, Perhaps not
       a total
      from-the-ground-up rehab, perhaps only a few cosmetic touches
      would have an earth-shaking impact, in this instance….

In Flow Chart, this prosaic banality is not even relieved by the frequent line breaks, each with its momentary promise (even if false) of significance, that might make this stuff more palatable. The remarkably long lines just keep rolling in one after another, nonchalantly bringing more litter onto the shore.

       Lately I have this feeling you were avoiding me.
       We could sum it
        all up as a bunch
    of nerves, little people peeing around, but there goes my Dober-
        man's tether, he's off and running,
    not to put too fine a point on it. And the
    cooling-off period ended,
    this time….

However much we may dislike it, this thin sound is the sound of late twentieth-century mass culture. If Auden was right that the job of poetry is to disintoxicate, then we should applaud.

And yet, having said this much, it must be pointed out that the "voices" of this vernacular, this common language, are all oddly the same. As if filtered through a single all-digesting consciousness, they all resolve into a single voice talking to itself, reenacting conversations overheard, remembered, participated in. In fact, the shifting of pronouns that is so characteristic of Ashbery's poetry and that he himself once described as a method of polyphony reveals itself in Flow Chart as the inner polyphony of ordinary consciousness: the shifts from I to you during reminiscence, the appearance of he's and she's that remain unnamed because they are known by the ruminating mind we have so intimately entered, the use of the us of a generation or of a participant in the larger culture.

But whose consciousness is this? In certain aspects, it is that of John Ashbery, poet. In most aspects, however, its relationship to experience is far removed from anything conventionally thought of as autobiographical. A statement from Henri Michaux, quoted by Ashbery himself in one of the articles he wrote for ArtNews, may be helpful here:

Instead of one vision which excludes others, I would have liked to draw the moments that, placed side by side, go to make up a life. To expose the interior phrase for people to see, the phrase that has no words, a rope which uncoils sinuously, and intimately accompanies everything that impinges from the outside or the inside. I wanted to draw the consciousness of existence and the flow of time. As you would take your pulse.

And an illuminating statement by Roland Barthes, quoted by Marjorie Perloff in her essay on Barthes and Ashbery:

… Barthes wants to create a "novelistic" texture that is no longer "dominated by the superego of continuity, a superego of evolution, history, and filiation."

Adapting these, one might say that Ashbery has created an autobiographical texture that is no longer dominated by the superego of continuity, a superego of personality created by memory and relationship; and in doing so, he has re-created the experience of a consciousness. This is consciousness that records the inflow and outflow of ideas, feelings, and sensations with a scientist's dispassion, stepping away from any desire to shape of form. This is a consciousness that is of interest not for its contents or products but for its willingness to exhibit itself simply being in time.

Such is the great honesty and even humility of Flow Chart. Disabused of grand ideas, Ashbery expresses neither nostalgia for those of the past, nor eagerness to install new ones. This includes ideas about the relationship between language and the world—that there might be a relationship between poetic value and accurate description, for example, or a clear connection between words and moral action, or between words and transcendent meaning:

                                     … what
      if poetry were something else entirely, not this purple weather with
      the eye of a god attached, that sees
      inward and outward? What if it were only a
      small, other way of
       living …

Another poet, at this intersection, would write antiepiphanies of emptiness or strike a note of grief, but Ashbery, with characteristic quietude, constrains himself to simply reflect this unknowing, in his own way expressing the view that poetry "makes nothing happen":

                             … and I have this thing
      I must do without knowing what it is or whether anyone
      will be helped or offended by it. Should I do it?
      And there, it was
      It will never be printed on a banner in a political demonstration
      or fed to rabbits first to see whether they die …

To write like this must be extremely liberating and yet require great restraint. There is something almost puritanical in the poem's abstentions—from symbolic language, from "high" language unaccompanied by irony, from the search for meaning through memory, from hopes that life might be redeemed through art, and, it also seems, from any notion that existence might be redeemed through love or even affirmed through sex:

      Love that lasts a minute like a filter
      on a faucet …
      … [I] have come belatedly to realize that sex has very little to do
         with any of it.

Now and then, this refusal to allow language the role of ordering experience into meaning takes on a tinge of affectation:

                    … The massive transcription with which
      he took unforgivable liberties—hell, I'd sooner join the project
      farther ahead, retaining all benefits, but one is doomed,
      repeating oneself, never to repeat oneself, you know what I mean?

And sometimes it descends to camp (a far less convincing method of dismissing meaning, tainted as it is by disappointment):

                                  … Furthermore
      the burliest male is but as a handmaiden to the suspicion of his own
      he's got it right, OK? And so have a few others, while the waiting's
          been going on. But enough of
      this self-congratulation in Aegean sunrises.
      Who are we, after all?
          And who needs profundity?

At its worst, the equivalence it grants to all language makes for some ambiguous juxtapositions:

              … It occurs to me in my home on the beach
      sometimes that others must have experiences identical to mine
      and are also unable to speak of them, that if we cared
      enough to go into each other's psyche and explore
      around, some of the canned white entrepreneurial brain food
      could be reproduced in time to save the legions
      of the dispossessed, and elephants….
      all the porters have shuffled away, under the erroneous impression
           we haven't the coin
      to pay them no doubt, yet it's not true, we would pay them if we
           could, but just look
      how they have left the funhouse mirror clearly visible for perhaps
           the first time
      and we can at last admire our billowing hips and hourglass
           waists …

But at its best, Ashbery's aesthetic offers something rather miraculous—moments of exaltation, available to us even in this sea of unknowing, seemingly as a part of the condition of existence itself:

                         … Sometimes we do
      perceive it
      this way, like animals that will get up and move somewhere and
         then drop down
      in place again, we hear it and especially we see it—some whitecap
      in a leaden expanse of water and we are aware this moment has
         done its share …

So it is surprising to find a more conventionally autobiographical note in Flow Chart—an odd note of personal defensiveness breaking the mandarin calm that pervades most of the poem, as in these lines, selected from an extended argument toward the end:

      [some accused me of] making howl-like sounds at night …
      … Others, recognizing my disinterest, nonetheless accused
      me of playing mind-games that only the skilled
      should ever attempt. My reply, then as always, was that ignorance
      of the law is the law, far from being no excuse, and we'll see who
         rakes in
      the chips come Judgment Day….
      … I've taken my lumps as well as enjoyed the good times
      now and then, and don't see what difference it makes to old
      of which I'm proud to count myself one.
      … chipping away at the noble experiment …
                                      … set out
      on your own at the eleventh hour, into the vast yawn or cusp …
      … And when we have succeeded, not know what to do with it
      except break it into shards that get more ravishing as you keep
          pounding them….

There is something moving about this "old soldier" sharing his doubts and defenses with his readers. And such passages are certainly in keeping with the unwillingness to assert too much that characterizes the entire poem. But sometimes they come close to naming too accurately the very doubts that the reader has been valiantly trying to tamp down. One of these passages jumped out with particular poignancy from page 117 of the poem:

                                Anyway, it was life,
      one had to agree, but all the same could have been better written,
         with more
      attention to niceties of style and fewer obscure references, though
         the concept,
      always, was beyond reproach.

Occurring just when one's bedazzlement was giving way to a kind of numbness from floating in this sea of language for so long, these lines, coyly referring to life instead of art, aroused a doubt that just would not go away. It's not that one would ask that Flow Chart be better written. No, it's a brilliant piece of writing. The doubt is rather one aroused by so many irreproachable works of "conceptual" art. The shards may be ravishing; the veneer, flawless. But once the concept has been grasped, is there any need to watch it play itself out, more or less repetitively, however glamorous the reiterations?

Is it possible that a poetry so intent on avoiding the frozen "idea" might itself congeal into a "concept"?

Well, yes.

And does Flow Chart?

Almost. Sometimes yes. Sometimes no.

This is the great risk of this kind of experiment—a risk more evident in a very long poem, in which the concept, exposed at such length, loses some of the provocative interest, the engaging shimmer it has in the shorter works.

Yet one does admire Flow Chart, especially at a time when hardly anyone is risking as much, even if feeling a bit like a soldier for art oneself while reading to the very end. And whatever comes on Judgment Day, one thing is for certain: It will never be "fed to rabbits first to see whether they die."

Martin Kevorkian (essay date Spring 1994)

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5840

SOURCE: "John Ashbery's Flow Chart: John Ashbery and the Theorists on John Ashbery Against the Critics Against John Ashbery," in New Literary History, Vol. 25, No. 2, Spring, 1994, pp. 459-76.

[In the following essay, Kevorkian explores the interactive relationship between Ashbery and his critics. According to Kevorkian, Ashbery's poetry reveals a pattern of "revenge" and "linguistic parasitism" through which he both engages and subtly responds to his critical audience.]

That's a phrase I've been saying and hearing for so many years—the people against. Nan Patterson—the people against Harry K. Thaw, and now the People against Mary Dugan. I have used that phrase so often that I've almost forgotten its meaning—and, Gentlemen, it has a very deep one.

John Ashbery's poetry asks its Gentlereaders not so much to recover some "deep" significance, but rather to hear its capacity to nudge toward oblivion the ordinary meanings of almost ordinary phrases. "One's gone for some grants" carries away the remnants of the expectation that such a one might return from this errand with a bag of deli sandwiches.

        One might say, casually,
      that there was variation in it, that there was texture. More, though,
      one still couldn't say.

Flow Chart, a product of John Ashbery's "own genre," lays out a series of speech processes "with communication left out, except in one vital respect. The natural noise of the present hypnotizes the reader and takes him over, or is taken over by him"; so states John Bayley in his review of Flow Chart, "Richly Flows Contingency." Ashbery's ability to infect us, to get us under the skin of common language where his poetry thrives—this insidious hospitality appears to constitute a "trade secret."

With this general sense of Ashbery's poetic "noise" in the background (for now), the following essay will examine selected instances—some more hospitable than others—of Ashbery's use by the academy, and Ashbery's use of Ashbery's use by the academy. For we will see that Ashbery inhabits not only "natural" noise in his stochastic ramblings, but also exploits the generative power of scholastic chatter. Loosely framed, Flow Chart claims to convert an early lament, "now the bridge will never be built," into a completed invitation, "It's open: the bridge, that way." Between these endpoints of the bridge's construction, we encounter references to Ashbery's readers and critics, his "onlookers" and "oracles," who appear to have made some unwitting contributions to the building process:

      It was the repeating of them that interested me. Repetition makes
      Besides, it's something you can build with. You need no longer
         inspect the materials
      When you buy them in bulk; they are as a territory. What gets built
      to be in that territory, though beside it. Your reputation as a builder
         is the one interesting thing

The logic of Flow Chart, I will argue, offers a descriptive structure for the odd relationship that can evolve between poet and academic readership.

Bayley believes a purely oppositional logic—an even relationship, so to speak—operates between Ashbery and his critical lumberyard: "Ashbery is clearly in revolt against modern academic and deconstructive practices where poetry is concerned: against the whole apparatus of university English departments." One central function of that apparatus comes under obvious attack in Flow Chart when Ashbery takes as a likeness "a dissertation of some kind. A great deal of thinking went into it and out the other side." Yet mockery does not ensure a poetry that effectively proscribes certain critical responses. Resisting, opposing, assuming the role of a double may even sustain complicated new discourse: even if Bayley is in some sense correct about the attitudes Ashbery expresses, one would still like to resolve the apparent paradox that deconstructive practice has thrived upon Ashbery's poetry.

If repetition interests Ashbery, gives him something to build with, deconstruction has indeed established itself as a familiar tune among Ashbery critics. Ashbery recalls that "Alvin and the chipmunks made nice ambient music for what / I was fussing over"; so, perhaps, did Derrida and the epigones. Jerome McGann testifies from the pages of Critical Inquiry: "If Frank O'Hara seems the antithesis of academic work, John Ashbery is, in his own way, its epitome…. Ashbery has become the touchstone of deconstructive analysis."

Ashbery voices ambivalence about the institutionalized relationship between poets and the francophilic departments wherein they may reside: "The French still say 'hailstones big as pigeon's / eggs,' and poets are retreating into—or is it out of?—academia." Ashbery himself has gone in one side and, perhaps, out the other of more than one institution of higher learning, yet it is possible that some of the "twaddle" may have stuck. George Steiner has recently commented on the sometimes salutary, sometimes unhealthy relationship between poets and the university: "Observe the semantic duplicity: poets who can be taught are also teachable." In a collection entitled The Future of Literary Theory, Alastair Fowler muses on the possible effects of such proximity: "It is sometimes wondered whether new kinds of kinds may be emerging—genres not produced by the usual assemblage, abstraction, modulation, and the like, but instead by novel processes of development…. In John Ashbery's poetry … abandonment of stable mimetic contexts seems almost to react directly to contemporary literary theory. In fact, one might think of 'theoretic genres,' motivated at least in part by a wish to illustrate (and perhaps validate) some particular theory."

On all such speculation of response to the influence of theory, David Lehman, in "The Pleasures of Poetry," remains more cautionary: "Ashbery's poetry is so richly textured, so replete with allusions and red herrings and complicated rhetorical gestures, that a critic with any degree of ingenuity can easily appeal to [Ashbery's] lines as the support system for a pet critical theory." Along these lines, we might wish to consult some claims from the horse's mouth:

John Koethe [Interviewer]: Many of those who are interested in your poetry seem to be interested in it in connection with theoretical ideas, particularly French theoretical ideas, like those of Jacques Derrida. Do you ever read works by such theorists, or do their views influence you secondhand, or do you ever use them in any way?

Ashbery: No. I think I'm very good subject matter for people who are trying to elaborate new theories of criticism. Perhaps it would be better for me if I didn't know anything about them because then I might consciously try to write stuff that would fit their theories.

Ashbery does not stutter when he says. "No"; Derrida stands denied. Yet the "if … then" logic is a bit muddled. And let's look again at that phrase, "perhaps it would be better for me if I didn't know" (my italics); would it be wrong to infer that Ashbery does know (and may even use) more theory than the absolute denial allows?

We can indeed find Derridean statements in Flow Chart, some so deliberate as to require almost no ingenuity for the critic to detect: "And these marginalia—what other word is there for them?—are the substance of the text, / by not being allowed to fit in." Or we might find the implied destruction of the hermeneutic space: "only think in terms of surfaces, boundaries." Ashbery, however, takes pains on the same page, "not to put too fine a deconstruction on it." But with conspiratorial sympathy/mockery, he allows that, "Like me / you too chose to put a better construction on these things than perhaps the case warranted."

Clearly, Flow Chart displays a poet at play with theory. But, other than having revealed evidence of Ashbery's propensity to incorporate "secondary" material into his art, we still have little notion of rules for his game, or of whether stakes exist. Ashbery taunts the reader (and communities of readers) for putting on a "better construction," for seeking

              to unravel ramifications that
      in fact do not exist, but like a gold toothpick are merely on hand to
         see that they
      get talked about and maybe some club will invite one of them to

Ashbery provides a later connection for us to unravel, but any ramification seems little more than the object which constitutes the connection, another gold toothpick of a sort: "The webs intersect at certain points where baubles / are glued to them; readers think this is nice. What else?"

If deconstructive analysis constitutes one major locus of Ashbery criticism, a cultural criticism that would like a serious consideration of the "what else" question emerges as another. Writing on the ethics of literature, Martha Nussbaum explains a personal motivation for seeking a transition (or connection) between playful/deconstructive analysis and the question of the social referent. "After reading Derrida," she comments, "I feel a certain hunger for … writing about literature that talks of human lives and choices as if they matter to us at all…. We do approach literature for play and delight, for the exhilaration of following the dance form and unraveling webs of textual connection. (Though even here I would not be quick to grant that there is any coherence to an account of aesthetic pleasure that abstracts altogether from our practical human interests and desires…. It speaks about us, about our lives and choices and emotions, about our social existence and the totality of our connections)." Along these lines, early in Flow Chart, Ashbery announces a concern for "What mattered to us":

      Who could have expected a dream like this to go away for there are
      that are the web on which our waking life is
      painstakingly elaborated:
      there are real, bustling things there and the
      burgomaster of success
      stalks back and forth, directing everything
      with a small motion of a finger.

Ashbery locates the social referent literally at his fingertips: "My politics shouldn't matter. It's my finger / that should … what we are is digital." For Ashbery, evidently, if not precisely the personal, then at least the minutely physiological, is the political.

Such direct, if puzzling, citations provide only the first approach to the social referent of Ashbery's poetry. One inventive Marxist critic has found Ashbery to be a deliberate social banalist. In the essay "Ashbery's Dismantling of Bourgeois Discourse," Keith Cohen writes: "In the metaphysical soap opera that is John Ashbery's poetry, a critical scrutiny of language plays a major role. Ashbery aims consistently at the glibness, deceitfulness, and vapidity of bourgeois discourse and in his poems subjects this discourse to a process of disintegration. What some may relegate … to the area of language games and gratuitous surrealistic effects is an integral part of a very serious attack." Nevertheless, critics of Ashbery (that is to say those who don't like him) often find an alleged absence of social referent to be Ashbery's weak point. Charles Molesworth in the essay "This Leaving Out Business" finds the "most [notable] … hallmark of Ashbery's style" to be "a fear of social reality."

In Flow Chart, we find Ashbery self-conscious of this discomfort:

    we try to excommunicate everyone including ourselves from society:
     even the word "society"
    is something each of us eventually gets a stranglehold on, forcing it
     to say "uncle"—there,
    I'm glad I did, and you can go away now.

However, as Ashbery must know, it seems unlikely within the current (po)lit-crit environment that those with social concerns will be so easily dismissed. Molesworth's analysis, along with that of Robert Boyers (the Salmagundi editor who published Molesworth's essay), seems the fundament of Ashbery bashing. Defenders of Ashbery, both Marjorie Perloff and David Lehman, for instance, usually start off by immediately taking a defensive stance explicitly against the positions of Molesworth and/or Boyers. In "The Pleasures of Poetry," Lehman notes only that the critical naysayers against Ashbery are in the minority, but in a slightly earlier essay, Lehman has written, "Again and again, by Molesworth and Boyers,… Ashbery is seen as part of a cultural movement, a force with wide and allegedly deleterious implications." Lehman says "again and again" but footnotes only the Molesworth attack which I cite here. This particular assault was not only published in Salmagundi, but was selected by Boyers to be anthologized in the retrospective Salmagundi Reader.

This bit of bibliographic emphasis is all by way of laying the groundwork for a somewhat Kinbotian theory of poetry as counter conspiracy. Though the deconstructive criticism may be purchased "in bulk," so to speak, it is just possible that Ashbery, in the instance of Molesworth, may have stooped to "examine the materials" and built accordingly. "Ashbery eschews the ordinary lyricism of verse, seldom bothering with rhyme or alliteration or strict meter … This prose quality goes hand in hand with the flat, affectless tone as well as the diffident, self-questioning attitude. The run of his argument, the flow of the poem's display of itself suggests a ruminative impulse at work" (italics mine).

Thus Charles Molesworth gears up for a paragraph in which he enumerates the failings of Ashbery's poetry: it is "illustrative rather than functional … hopeless [wearying] chaos … Jamesian prose … studded with cliches."

Moreover, of Ashbery's collection Three Poems, Molesworth notes that "no reviewer of this work has had the temerity to suggest it was a good-natured hoax, a jeux d'esprit in which the confessional impulses of contemporary poetry were so gluttonously satisfied that they were simultaneously being scorned. Ashbery stuffed his ['poetry'] with so much mandarin prose, masking such banal content, or at least cultivating a stultifying surface banality, that the modesty of the book's title can be read either as a deadpan joke or a highhanded taunt." It is perhaps ridiculous and maniacal to imagine, not to mention temerarious to suggest, that Flow Chart, or at least the title (which Ashbery claims usually to pick first), represents a manner of taunt, a deadpan translation of Molesworth's phrase, "the flow of the poem's display of itself."

Whether Molesworth is the specific communicant or not, the reader can hear Ashbery preempting the sort of things that might get said about his poetry. But if we do hypothesize Molesworth, we can spin out a little dialogue.

Molesworth, to conclude his jeremiad, laments the loss of "political fervor in poetry now that the 1960's are past." Ashbery responds, "Oh, stop badgering—where were you in the fifties?" (note here again a typical strategy of the Ashbery voice, to inhabit a familiar phrase—where were you in the sixties—and change just one word). Another pertinent decade to this debate might be the thirties, with Ashbery's allusion to the 1930 Vanderbilt/Fugitive/New Agrarian manifesto I'll Take my Stand. Again: "My politics shouldn't matter. It's my finger / that should—it's here I'll take my stand."

On the issue of what Molesworth calls Ashbery's "stultifying surface banality," we might note the poet's "banal if agreeable note-spinning" and the even more coy,

                  You fuck me. I'll
     fix you. You give me that, and I'll give you this.
     It's all so important
        yet so excruciatingly
     banal, isn't it, darling?

Furthermore, Molesworth accuses Ashbery of "anal retentiveness" and notes Ashbery's lack of "free wheeling humor." Ashbery seems to dispel both claims at once with a line that stands alone: "Excuse me while I fart. There, that's better. I actually feel relieved." To take this all to ludicrous extremes, by a process of elimination we might find within the letters of Flow Chart the celebration of a sort of "low art." Or, simply, "Fart" (depending on which way you go with the bifurcated F/low).

Perhaps all this has been to make a mountain—or at least a badger's mound—out of a mole's worth of cheap earth. There remains, it seems, the putting of a "better construction" on an already dubious one. To put it rather crassly, can we use some other Theory to talk about my little theory (that Ashbery includes responses to criticism in his poetry)? George Steiner "would define the claim to theory in the humanities as impatience systematized." I fear that I have neither the time nor the conviction to refute him. Ashbery's poetry has led me so thoroughly into the temptations of theory that Steiner's words ring truer than ever: "Parasitic discourse feeds upon living utterance; as in microbiological food-chains, the parasitic in turn feeds upon itself. Criticism, metacriticism, diacriticism, the criticism of criticism, pullulate." My hope and claim is that the very truth of this charge may illuminate the Ashbery phenomenon. Or, rather, that the Ashbery phenomenon may illuminate and revalue a certain reciprocity between the aims of literary study and the aims of contemporary literature being studied.

Two key words which appear in Flow Chart broadly outline the discussion which follows. Ashbery's poetry will be seen to reveal two related mechanisms: explicitly, the logic of rivalry and "revenge"; and, perhaps more subtly, the cunning logic of the "parasite." "We'd have rivalry at the end, sure, but cunning as well in the abstract."

We might return for a moment to reconsider the implications of Nussbaum's suggestion: that unraveling the web may be an important exercise. Ashbery lets us know that he is aware of one particular issue intimately enmeshed with the web of the world: the issue of revenge. With the flourish of a magician's promise, Ashbery announces:

           Now to expunge
     the revenge-motif, and get it all right for once.
     Life is an embroidery-
       frame, and what you put
     into it gets left there.

But he seems to know the mere declaration won't quite do it, that expunged violence gets reabsorbed into the system: "in this kind of bleached-out crisis- / feeling, the best one can do is remain polite while dreaming of revenge in another key." Such acknowledgement of duplicity, coupled with Ashbery's occasional willingness to be sincerely impolite, seems to function in the mode of revelation, unraveling the problems, the pleasures of revenge. Reneé Girard, probably the most visible "theorist" of the problem of revenge, has repeatedly described the "sacralization" of the destructive cycle of "mimetic desire." Ashbery's language in Flow Chart at times shadows Girard's—from say, Deceit, Desire and the Novel or Violence and the Sacred"—up to a point:

     Once two were saddled with each other's lies which became as a
      sacramental trust
     for them. They listened, they put forth feelers pouted on cue, but in
     course banshees exploited the situation. And once the climate of
      trust is destroyed
     only lust for vengeance can take its place—or so one would have us

The fact that Ashbery emphasizes the "one" implies that he may have a particular theorist (somewhat skeptically) in mind. Girard is one obvious choice, but not the only one. Michael Serres speaks of the epistemology of suspicion, and the drive to destruction mistrust engenders when the gods and goddesses of myth—or the human sciences—enlist Hermes and Argus (Panoptes) to police one another's cheating, and to commit murder: "Tired of these deceitful games, of these tricks, dreaming that our brief lives might escape this monotonous cycle of blood and death, we hope to return to a moment of trust that neither deceives nor cheats." More succinctly, Ashbery reminds us that, "Mercury slew Argus for vulgar reasons."

I find that even as I attempt to deploy theory descriptively from outside the poetry, I am never far from the deranged inkling that Ashbery has already used (and/or defused) said theory from within. However, whereas in the case of Molesworth we could at least posit some plausible motive, with the theorists of vengeance we are really stitching with air. But then again, the plausible motive for Ashbery's possible response to Molesworth, if not exactly bloodthirsty, would have to look quite a bit like revenge. That is, if Ashbery's poem responds to a particular critic, the structure of that very response may be described by a theory (to which Ashbery might also be responding).

Ashbery observes that "two were saddled with each other's lies which became as a sacramental trust." In Girard's mimetic system, the critic Molesworth, insofar as he enters into verbal rivalry with the poet, would become the "double" of Ashbery; the reciprocal is true of Ashbery if he picks up the gauntlet. Implicitly, Girard invokes the monadic system of Leibniz to describe the relationship: "In the world of the doubles … seen against the comings and goings of the violence that both separates and unites them, the two partners come to be, by turns, the one and only god, who sees everything converge on him and kneel before him, and the puny, speechless, trembling creature … a kind of monad … at the feet of this god, who has mysteriously taken up residence with the other person, the rival and model for desire." Girard's world of the doubles, to apply it simplistically to the poet versus critic hypothesis, suggests a partnership through which Ashbery's poetry continues to inhabit Molesworth's writing, and Molesworth's critiques make their presence felt in Flow Chart. In an important respect, however, Ashbery transcends this system, by playing (and seeing) all the positions. Ashbery seems capable of a detached Girardian overview of the system, an insight Girard generally attributes to nonparticipants in the conflict. In Girard's words, "Everyone imitates the other's violence…. Uninvolved spectators see this unmistakably." We may recall Ashbery's firm grasp of the violent, predictable quid pro quo of his own relations:

                       You fuck me. I'll
     fix you. You give me that, and I'll give you this.
     It's all so important
        yet so excruciatingly
     banal, isn't it, darling?

The work of Michael Serres may serve to help us further describe the relations of exchange discoverable in Ashbery's poetry. Serres does his research on the logical, informational, economical, societal system of "the parasite" by retelling fables and examining their internal structures: "Quite curiously, the manners of this wolf, fox, lion, monkey, cat, or rat are never, or seldom, those of predators; in these stories, they are almost always those of parasites. In the guise of an attack, a theft, a power-play, in the person of these animals, the simple relation of the abusive companion reappears." As described by Serres, the king of the system of Leibniz is the king of uneasy cohabitations, the harmonic master of parasitic polyphony. A network of parasitic relations approaches its "limit," "the system of Leibniz," when the multiplicity of parasites is subsumed into one who controls all exchanges.

Ashbery expresses interest in the fabular world of the parasite and in the beast who plays the parasitic role to the hilt:

     It has long been my contention that jackals,
     unlike other denizens of the epistemic forest, are able to predict
     the future of metabolizing some kind of parasite that grows on other
     children and devours them. The eyes are a profound cobalt blue,
     of moral dilemmas and sprouting proverbs slowly, like crystals,
     but no, not innocent,
     and not lacking in character.

From this rather difficult passage, I gather that Ashbery has noted some harsh wisdom in the jackal's unique speculation: one can go one step better than being a parasite by eating (and "metabolizing") one. The "cobalt blue" eyes linger as the dominant visual image of the passage, but their significance lies not so much in their color as such, but rather in the perceptive power cobalt implies medically—a cobalt blue light is used to diagnose eye and skin infections, which glow tellingly beneath its beam. This perspicuity sets the metabolizer of parasites apart from the other "denizens of the epistemic forest." Serres, writing his animal fabular "epistemology of the parasite," notes, "Quite simply, what is essential is neither the image nor the deep meaning, neither the representations nor its hall of mirrored reflections, but the system of relations. The relation is that of guest to host [hôte à hôte]."

Serres's doubling of guest and host recalls J. Hillis Miller's famous demonstration (more difficult in English) that "host" and "guest" are etymologically and semantically interchangeable. Hillis Miller performs this feat in "The Critic as Host," his defense of deconstruction against the charge of Wayne C. Booth and M. H. Abrams that the "deconstructionist reading of a given work is plainly and simply parasitical on the obvious or univocal reading." Gregory Ulmer notes in this context that Serres's "paraliterary text," The Parasite, is "a full elaboration (allegory) of the story of deconstruction, of the alien guest in the home." In Hillis Miller's account:

The poem, in my figure, is that ambiguous gift, food, host in the sense of the victim, sacrifice. It is broken, divided, passed around, consumed by critics canny and uncanny who are in that odd relation to one another of host and parasite. Any poem, however, is parasitical in its turn on earlier poems, or it contains earlier poems within itself as enclosed parasites, in another version of the perpetual reversal of parasite and host. If the poem is food and poison for the critics, it must in its turn have eaten. It must have been a cannibal consumer of earlier poems.

In general resonance with Hillis Miller's imagery, a recurring motif of sacrificial language haunts Flow Chart: "remonstrance," "sacramental," "sacrifice," "sacrificial wine." This host Ashbery extends to his readers clearly does contain the eaten parasites Hillis Miller mentions, both unaltered pieces of predecessor poems often set off by italics or quotation marks, as well as digested bits of the canon—Shakespeare, the Bible—that fit within the skin of Ashbery's language. And I would further suggest that Ashbery's poetry encloses not only the parasites of earlier poets, but also of earlier critics. If so, Ashbery plays what appears to be the trump (post) card—that is, for this hand—in the allegory of deconstruction. Like the jackal, he metabolizes the parasites.

The deconstructive logic of Hillis Miller incorporates two definitions of the parasite; as we will see, both Serres and Ashbery recognize a third meaning. Hillis Miller provides (from the American Heritage Dictionary) the biological and the social definitions: an organism that feeds upon its host, or a person that takes advantage of generosity. Serres calls upon the French language for a third definition, a point his translator, Lawrence Schehr, emphasizes: "the parasite is noise as well, the static in a system or the interference in a channel."

Ashbery plays with both the biological and the social definitions, but also observes the interruptive noise associated with both. Ashbery makes mention of "Noises that bit me, / would-be fanciers skulking around, after an autograph or a piece of your hair, no doubt." "Noises that bit me" appears to combine at least two definitions of the parasite: Serres's included third meaning, noise; and the biological rat or bug that bites. Tagging close behind the noisy nibbling of informational and biological parasitism, Ashbery finds the social parasites, the hangers-on seeking his word and his flesh. "But the last word is always the author's so you might want to dwell a bit / more on the perfections of form adjusted to content, and vice versa too." Dwell well on his poetry while you can, be its hôte; for if blue-eyed Ashbery predicts any future in metabolizing your parasitic presence, he will surely find a way for you to dwell in his poetry.

Following his speculation on jackals and parasites, Ashbery ruminates that

                  One very chewy advanced proposition
    seemed to falter, then faded into the background noise, but—here's
     the thing—
    continued, to this day

The parasitic noise persists: "everyone may bon gré mal gré ignore it, yet it peaks / and in so doing has its say." The French expression is the meeting place of ambivalence and ambiguity: "will one or will one not" (an undetermined choice), or "willy-nilly" (an indeterminate state). Serres finds ambiguity to be a necessary ingredient for an information rich system. According to Shannon's equations, ambiguity can provide information precisely because it is ambivalent: on a given level (of, say, one who is transmitting a signal), ambiguity is noise to be filtered out: on the next level up (say, the receiver), however, the very same term—the ambiguity term—changes its sign from negative to positive in the equation describing the total information of the system. "In one case it covers up: in the other case, it expresses." Ashbery's explicit use of ambivalence, and his availability to natural noise, makes for a high degree of ambiguity, but also for "information" (however potentially spurious the handwaving involved in attempting to translate information into "meaning").

The ambiguity function contributes to the poetics of association: "For an observer outside the system, ambiguity must be added, for it increases the system's complexity…. Embedded in this process [is] the entire strategy of free association. Freudian slips, jokes and puns…. We perceive nothing of the deafening background noise given off by the system, except for interesting pieces of information relating to the general functioning of these transformations or their local breakdown." Ashbery employs both the attention-getting local breakdowns and transformations that send us looking for general patterns: "with as many associations as that," the repeated phrase itself an encoded redundancy, "the whole freight train of associations is set in motion, lumbers gracelessly." One minute transformation causes us to suspect a master plan: the word perfectibility misspelled early in the poem—when it was merely an unfulfilled "desire for perfectability"—finds its corrected answer when "human perfectibility" gets "promoted to the first desk." Yet if we check back to the source of the error, we find Ashbery's protestation against "little pieces of the puzzle getting in on the act." Rather than a master plan, perhaps we have detected nothing more than the noise of the typesetting machine: "something like an actual misprint occurs." Perhaps, but such accidental noise can be arranged.

Ashbery acts as a parasite—his poetry derives informational complexity by parasiting, adding bits of noise to, the messages of ordinary language: "thus the message, passing through his hands in the location of the exchanger, is changed. It arrives neither pure nor unvarying nor stable. I am willing to have it improve, but that is a judgment…. What is true is that the message is burdened and arrives thus burdened. To speak correctly, it is parasited. The parasite has placed itself in the most profitable positions, at the intersection of relations." Let us return again to Ashbery's phrase "One's gone for some grants." The noise ("sandwiches" scrambled, exchanged for "grants") introduces a complexity that invites the reader to look for a new logic of the message. This new logic might be found to replicate the profitable linguistic parasitism on the signal: the warping of what we might call "office" language points to an academic research-grant-based economy in which sustenance (sandwiches and other forms of bread) is exchanged for words (and words on words).

Bayley concludes his review of Flow Chart by comparing Ashbery's "noise" to the "fabled" nonsense "dinner table" conversation of Bloomsbury critic Desmond Macarthy: to enrich his description of parasitic noise, Bayley offers the portrait of a famous social parasite. The Parasite is full of stories of interrupted meals, and of the art of living by the exchange of fables, information at the dinner table: "the parasite is invited to the table d'hôte…. [H]e buys his dinner, paying for it in words. It is the oldest profession in the world." The parasite pays with words. Or noise. Or, sometimes, noise interposed on noise's interruption of noise. In our language, the negative connotations of the word parasite are difficult to evade; for Serres, the charming art of the parasite may achieve greatness. Ashbery, our "most successful poet," might also be the most thoroughgoing of parasites. Perhaps the best way to live as a parasite (to exchange words for goods) is to be always a parasite (to inhabit the noise of ordinary speech, and to interpose oneself into the discourse of those who have interrupted yours).

Beginning with a "black box" labeled "production," Serres retells a fable while building a cascade of parasites: the tax farmer thrives as "an interrupter" of production, and the rats feast off the farmer's parasitism, until their parasitism is interrupted by a noise. "Yet noise has a subject, the one who makes the noise, in the fable. No doubt it is the farmer, the parasited one. One of the first in the chain, he was thus cheated on behind his back. Awakened by the noise of the rats, cutting and nibbling, he suddenly opens the door. He jumps behind those who were eating behind his back and chases them. The parasited one parasites the parasites. One of the first, he jumps to the last position. But the one in the last position wins this game." We might construct an analogous cascade, beginning with the black box of language, substituting Ashbery for the farmer, and critics (Molesworth, deconstructors, et al.) for the rats.

Like the farmer, Ashbery is both first and last in line at the table of language. Serres notes that the black box of production remains a mystery; though we may explain away Ashbery's strategies as parasitic, he remains very close to our own black box of language. And, according to all observable academic indicators, Ashbery's poetry very nearly approximates the quality of Serres's mysterious genuine source: "Real production is undoubtedly rare, for it attracts parasites that immediately make it something common and banal. Real production is unexpected and improbable; it overflows with information and is always immediately parasited."

Serres observes that "every parasite … at the table of a somewhat sumptuous host, soon transforms the table into a theater." A parasitic reading of Ashbery's poetry—an information-rich host—will add complexity and tend to transform the poetry into theater. In this essay, for example, we began to hear a hypothetical dialogue between Ashbery and the subparasite Molesworth. Ashbery's poetry not only invites this manner of theatrical reconstruction, but already plays host to an array of theatrical works: Lear, Troilus and Cressida, Hamlet, The Trial of Mary Dugan. This last Ashbery implies is a novel: Ashbery's categorization is perhaps instructive. The Trial of Mary Dugan did appear as a novel, but as a parasitic novel, based upon an earlier play. The idea had occurred to you during a performance of a high-school play. / You weren't ashamed to take credit for it—why should you be?"

There is perhaps no need for apology: for a novelist turning a play into a novel, or for a would-be parasitic critic turning poetry into dialogue. According to thermo- and social dynamics, "the parasite was inevitable." Or, less deterministically, "something may come of something." Lear is not heard to argue.

As the reader may have begun to notice, "the parasite doesn't stop. It doesn't stop eating or drinking or yelling or burping or making thousands of noises or filling space with its swarming and din. The parasite is an expansion; it runs and grows. It invades and occupies. It overflows, all of a sudden, from these pages." But it can, for a merciful time, fade "into the background noise." To await, perhaps, a new offering of the host, the host who is always a gracious guest. "Well I see I've not outstayed my welcome." Of such statements, one is apt to feel, the critic remains less assured than does the poet.

Calvin Bedient (review date October 1994)

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SOURCE: A review of And the Stars Were Shining, in Poetry, Vol. 165, No. 1, October, 1994, pp. 44-7.

[In the following review, Bedient offers tempered praise for And the Stars Were Shining, though he notes that this volume is "not one of his strongest."]

John Ashbery famously has all the humor omitted by Eavan Boland, and then some. As is well known, disappointment leavened by humor, pathos gussied up in tinker-toy hats and cow-belled shoes, is his theme. "The afternoon / will fold you up," he promises in "Like a Sentence," "along with preoccupations / that now seem so important, until only a child / running around on a unicycle occupies center stage." It's part of his charm that he knows we won't believe him, part of his generosity to make the momentarily charming gesture.

"To nail the fizzle," as he put it in the poem "Joy" in Hotel Lautréamont (1992), is his half-serious intent—half-serious because the impossibility of succeeding is clear and a "godliberating whimsy" is thus required for sanity. Still, despite its high jinks, his poetry is philosophical. He knows as well as Heidegger that the future is the present's fizzle, both its champagne and its expiring tire. But where Heidegger erected a philosophy to it, Ashbery runs around in it like "the emperor's mice" ("Joy"). He's a poet of the ontological (and linguistic) blahs.

If the soul begins in a maternally inflected lack, as Lacan and Ashbery seem to agree, Ashbery's distinction is to find amusement as well as pain in this lack, a little room for affectionate fantasy, and to write it into a far more variegated imaginative whirl, and be more congenially companionable about it ("I think we can handle it together," he says in the title poem), than anyone else has done, even Samuel Beckett, for instance.

Compared to Boland, he's never single-stranded about anything, including aging. "It / isn't possible to be young anymore," he says in this most autumnally crumbly of his books. "Yet the tree treats me like a brute friend; / my own shoes have scarred the walk I've taken" ("Token Resistance"). This moves brilliantly from "being done to" to "being accepted by" to "having done harm to." It's as deep as it is swift. (The last line, however Lowellian, passes muster.) What saves Ashbery from droopy pathos is a die-hard gratitude for existence, sustained by the mysterious opening of Being to its own future, the exciting quality of that openness, "the blue acquiescence of spring." But of course he's shy about such joy—for, always, and despite the "peace, quiet, a dictionary … / It was as if all of it had never happened" ("And the Stars Were Shining"). Fizzle.

Still, the new book's not one of his strongest. Its "liberating whimsy" is less inspired than one could wish. The dazzle of, say, Houseboat Days is scarcely recalled. Partly the autumnal theme discourages it; partly it just isn't there. The focus lacks fierceness. If Ashbery here performs a lack of luster ("Okay, but can we have a little luster, / here, please, a little texture," he says in "Weather and Turtles"), it's because he's missing it. But that doesn't excuse the frequent silliness, for instance, in "My Gold Chain," "Nobody ever asked me to be a bridesmaid / so maybe I'm a bride?" Such humor is idle, self-flagellation with a rubber duck. "Life is legendary. We're very bullish / on life," he writes in "World's End." "Dogs and other lives / convince us life is dog-cheap." This is to beat a dead dog until it whimpers. "Thought I'd ankle over," the poet says in "In the Meantime, Darling." "Then the sca rushed past. / Hurricane Charlie and his sister / sure were glad to see us." Who'd have thought that Ashberian comedy would come to this: labored self-pity?

But the Ashbery with a genius for a paradoxically spanking pathos, even for a belated sublime bespattered with banality, is at least enough present in the book to make one want more of him—him exclusively. He's in these lines from "Like a Sentence," for instance:

          I was going to say I had squandered spring
     when summer came along and took it from me
     like a terrier a lady has asked one to hold for a moment
     while she adjusts her stocking in the mirror of a weighing machine.

Poor little man, the terrier-spring is not ever his to own—this is a fine comic conceit. Ashbery the fantastically gifted appears again at the close of the same poem:

                        for though we came
     to life as to a school, we must leave it without graduating
     even as an ominous wind puffs out the sails
     of proud feluccas who don't know where they're headed,
     only that a motion is etched there, shaking to be free.

This puffs at the imagination—has a paradigmatic magnificence that the contractions almost guarantee and the exotic "proud feluccas" can't sink (they're not, after all, grand vessels). The moving Ashbery appears again in "The Improvement": "I wake up, my face-pressed / in the dewy mess of a dream." This is the "traditional" done right, done over. He's in fine form again in "What's needed is to set us back on the track, having gently peed, and that for some orpheum other than ourselves" ("What Do You Call It When"). Boy and old man meld touchingly in the phrases "having gently peed" and "set us back on the track"—and though "orpheum" is not in the Oxford English Dictionary, as the name of some old-style American movie houses, it makes a shelter for the imagination, is the imagination as shelter.

Ashbery is a Renaissance-to-modern humanist of an absolutely minimal kind, which is better than not being one at all—in fact, he's one of the few poets who can still get away with stating humanist sentiments, which he does by getting in the first laugh. Forget big plans to build a world of abundance and justice for all; forget, that is, ambitious humanism. Yet even if "We sure live in a bizarre and furious / galaxy," he says in the title poem,

               now it's up to us to make it
     into an environment for maps to sidle up to,
     as trustingly as leeches. Heck, put us
     on the map, while you're at it.
     That way we can smoke a cigarette, and stay and sway,
     shooting the breeze with night and her swift promontories.

"Sure" and "Heck" are a tad too anxiously folksy, even if pseudo-folksy, but the casually grand scope, delivered in a shoot-the-breeze idiom, is irresistible.

And now a final example of the splendors of Ashbery from the uneven title poem, the finest yet:

                        For we end
     as we are forgiven, with chords the bird promised
     caught in our throats, O sweetest song,
     color of berries, that I lied for and extended
     improbably a little distance from the given grave.

Who besides Ashbery can write sublimely about something so dirt-cheap as disappointment with a lying little song the color of berries thrown in at a little distance from the given grave? He has the divine spark.

Joshua Clover (review date Winter 1995)

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SOURCE: "In the Act: John Ashbery's And the Stars Were Shining," in Iowa Review, Vol. 25, No. 1, Winter, 1995, pp. 177-83.

[In the following review, Clover offers favorable assessment of And the Stars Were Shining.]

The risk of falling into oneself, of disappearing inside the welter of strategies and signifiers aggregately known as individual style, is endemic among those gifted enough to have such a style in the first place; the more cultural weight that style achieves, the greater the risk. In the case of the greatest poet of our time the risk becomes enormous making the consistency of Mr. Ashbery's poetic achievement since Some Trees all the more astounding. Almost every book has done something different, has challenged even readers already versed in Ashberiana; each has been dazzlingly full of good stuff. Even Hotel Lautreamont, which seemed dangerously close to the self-parody and reflexive pastiche of someone who has been famously brilliant—and then brilliantly famous—for too long, can now be seen as a passing through rather than a falling into, the feints and strategies of a mercurial artist in the act of shifting gears. With the exception of the title poem which closes the new collection. And The Stars … is composed exclusively of shorter poems: the majority are less than a page, none longer than two. Within the strictures of this formal space, Ashbery has recontextualized—and regenerated—the poetics his readers are used to encountering in more elaborated circumstances.

Perhaps his most signatory gesture has always been in his transition from line to line: in the words of Louis-Georges Schwartz, "at the beginning of one of Ashbery's canonized works the uninitiated reader expects the slight disjuncture between juxtaposed lines to be patched over by the end, but the space between the lines is slowly revealed as a gaping abyss. The modernist protocol of reading falls off (or in)." Yet against these constructed slippages that keep the reader always in the act of understanding, Ashbery's motion is dreamily seamless: line one leads reasonably to line two, and then two to three…. However, should lines one and three be introduced at a party they would swear up and down they'd never met. Ashbery though is a master host: his lines, once introduced, always get on famously. This capacity is thematized in "The Mandrill on the Turnpike," which begins, as he so often does, with a casual philosophical proposition: "It's an art, knowing who to put with what." That said, he continues, "and then, while expectations drool, make off with the lodestar / wrapped in a calico handkerchief, in your back pocket." The sinuous, elusive motion here brings to mind the Action Painters who played such a visible role in the New York School from which Ashbery sprang fully grown—but the slyness of this motion is all his. We have been trained to expect certain things from Ashbery: arbitrary detail which does not set the scene (the calico handkerchief), sudden plunges into the lowbrow (the Pythonesque drool)—but aren't these items rather well-wedded? And doesn't this daffy rigor give us the faith to track his ever more fugitive motion? "Mandrill" leads us, over the course of the partial page it occupies, through peregrinations beyond what this essay can easily contemplate: "the clock strikes ten, the evening's off and running" and during its passage "every thing and body are getting sorted out," including the speaker, who either is or isn't "Jack"; his brother the spy; "You and Mrs. Molesworth" (a winking nod to Thomas Pynchon, that); and of course "the subjunctive creeps back in, / sits up, begs for a vision, / or a cookie." Well, what's a poem without a speaking part for a (grammatical) mood?

This array of dramatis personae and technical measures (and one of Ashbery's tropes has always been the dissolution of the barrier between these categories—the language is a character) would sound merely catalogical and frantic from another poet. Ashbery's compositional gift—his unique grace in transitions so fluid they're practically dissociative—has catalyzed his work since the beginning. Such motion in, for example, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror or Rivers and Mountains served to keep open the possibility of further exploration: the very device for composing longer poems. Returning to such a gesture in a poem of perhaps 25 lines does a different trick entirely, allowing philosophy without conclusion, brevity without the closure he's always rejected. Indeed, Ashbery often does exactly the opposite of that for which he so exalts music: his is a poetry of propositions—philosophical, flirtatious—without resolution. The generous, anti-hegemonic politics of this are rather easy to explicate; the poetics more elusive. Among the few poets who are genuinely moving, most rely on either the carrot of familiar pleasures or the stick of righteousness: Ashbery carries us in his own motion—a motion so often described by both him and his critics in aquatic terms (a wave, the act of looking through a running stream at an intelligence in action) that by now it's second nature to believe it so. But the transits of wave and stream are essentially unidirectional; their endpoints are fixed long in advance; and their motion is, at least in human terms, infinite.

Ashbery's poems defy all three of these qualities. Much has been made of his sudden shifts of direction, and of his explosion of our expectations regarding where (or if) a poem might conclude. However, it's the third quality—his finitude, as it were—which dominates And The Stars…. The concerns of again, or of time's relentless passage, permeate all the integuments of the book, from "Now it's years after that. It / isn't possible to be young anymore" ("Token Resistance," on the first page) to "As children we played at being grownups. / Now there's trouble brewing on the horizon" (part XIII of the title poem, on the final page). Thus it is in concern as well as in construction that the poems of And The Stars … are written under the sign of "At North Farm," which Helen Vendler has read persuasively as a magical token against aging (in which "the dish of milk is set out at night" to propitiate the agents of the afterlife).

In "Token Resistance," age makes its incursions on the speaker over the course of a journey, a descent

     from checkered heights
     that are our friends, needlessly
     rehearsing what we will say
     as a common light bathes us,
     a common fiction reverberates as we pass
     to the celebration. Originally
     we weren't going to leave home. But made bold
     by the rain we put our best foot forward.

The voice of this middle portion of the poem is oddly, amorphously collective in discussing the travels, particularly given how the first line of the poem foregrounds the isolations available to language with excruciatingly awkward syntax: "As one turns to one in a dream." Of course, this "one" is vintage Ashbery, the pronoun which above all suggests French in translation and in turn calls up his beloved Surrealists. If "one" in English is resolutely third-person, in French it's often a formalized displacement of the first person—the linguistic equivalent of holding the self in abeyance which has always charged Ashbery's poetry (as in the similarly phrased passage from "Self-Portrait," the poem which most directly takes up the otherness of the self: "One would like to stick one's hand / Out of the globe, but its dimension / What carries it, will not allow it"). In "Token Resistance," this distanced self comes out the other side of the group passage as the far more defined "me" in the last stanza:

      Now it's years after that. It
      isn't possible to be young anymore.
      Yet the tree treats me like a brute friend;
      my own shoes have scarred the walk I've taken.

Before the last two lines there is no individual speaker in the poem aside from the one we know to have caused the poem to exist; the suggestion is that age has concretized the self. But only a sucker would go for that: Ashbery has been dodging such fixity for about as long as Moses was in the desert. The next poem will have only "us" and "them"; when the first person does return, it will be to insist, "Don't look at me."

Yet, at the end of "Token Resistance," something is made tangible, visible, available: "the walk," which has apparently now been made so many times that its course is "scarred" into the ground. This simple transformation crystallizes—with staggering precision—that which has always set Ashbery apart from lesser poets. His poetics have been those of a man with a deeply troubled relationship to the image: he's been—like de Kooning, for example—more gripped by the processes of life than the pictures it provides. The very first line of his Selected Poems is "We see us as we truly behave" [italics mine]. Our view of ourselves is composed of what we do, which begs the question of how such an appearance can be rendered. Frank O'Hara answered the question by exfoliating a genre sometimes dismissed (by fools) as 'I do this, I do that, I go here, I go there' poetry; Ashbery has taxed his and our imaginations by deploying a constellation of solutions, evasions, workarounds, and inventions which become, in the end, what he is. In his way, O'Hara was poet-as-urbanist, tracing the passage of the body through the landscape of industrial modernism; Ashbery in turn traces the passage of the mind through that same landscape. And, having survived the collapse of the modernist project in a way that O'Hara's I-g-centricity couldn't have, he gets the dolorous treat of playing in the rubble.

I don't mean to suggest that Mr. Ashbery can't write an image: few poetic visuals match the uncanniness of "In a far recess of summer / Monks are playing soccer" (Some Trees), or the hi-def cinematography of this book's "like a terrier a lady has asked one to hold for a moment / while she adjusts her stocking in the mirror of a weighing machine" ("Like A Sentence"). It's that he knows that the image, despite its good publicity in writing workshops, is not the sensual core of experience but rather one amongst an array of roughly coeval phenomena passing through the medium of language.

And language is truly the medium Ashbery inhabits, unlike a host of poets who seem to use words only incidentally, because they've been the dominant mode of distributing one's thoughts and feelings for so long. The final line of "Token Resistance" is legible as a figuring of legibility itself, as the great reconciliation of language and image: "the walk," the action, the motion, is transmuted into the visible—is in-scribed on the world—through the act of its repetition. Repetition, as Berryman reminds us ("What do poets do? They do things again"), is the marker of style: in Ashbery, we see style transforming action into image.

John Cage has said that a musical note has four qualities: pitch, timbre, volume, and duration; it's around that final quality that much of his explorations revolved. Ashbery seems to have taken up this gauntlet on poetry's behalf; his theorizing of the effect of style (which is in turn the location of the personal—it's what one does) also allows the action—the transit of the self through the language—to elude the transitory, to become a permanent mark. Of course this transformation occurs in the opening poem of And The Stars … as it must: it provides the key which opens (or perhaps unfolds) the entire collection. For not only does it illuminate the relationship amongst the seen, the done, and the said (and this has always been among Ashbery's multifold projects), it supposes an escape from the book's emotional problematic: the sorrow of time's passage. There's a weariness in "My own shoes have scarred the walk I've taken," but also a deeply earned calm moment. If And The Stars … is bound between that rueful "Now" in the first poem and its companion in the last. Ashbery comes within those boundaries to a new sense of the self's duration, of what it means to leave one's mark on the world—and in doing so finds revelation inside the problem of the image.

Twining—or twinning—the internal problem (that of action and image) and the external (the self and time) into a single topos also ensures a permeable border between the world and the poem. This becomes a deeply generous gesture, foreclosing on the risk of the hermeticism at which the author has always gianced come-hitherly, without sacrificing the complexity and grand undecidability that he has long owned. It would be a mistake to praise the book's accessibility. Nothing could be less true; in fact, there are ways in which the tracking of Ashbery (and it often feels just like that, like the exulting pursuit of a mind that's departed the familiar maps) is made all the more difficult for the compressed space in which the sudden turns and leaps occur. It's more the case that his grace in providing us with the necessary tools is at its zenith. In "Like A Sentence" for example, he takes up the mantle of difficulty—indeed, unknowability—immediately (here again his appropriation of philosophy as a pick-up line): "How little we know / and when we know it!" But having announced epistemology as the topic, he shortly renders it irrelevant:

      It was prettily said that "No man
      hath an abundance of cows on the plain, nor shards
      in his cupboard." Wait! I think I know who said that! It was
      Never mind, dears, the afternoon
      will fold you up, along with preoccupations
      that now seem so important

Having collapsed both the possibility and usefulness of knowing your stuff, the poem (and it's with Ashbery as with no one else that we're tempted to speak of the poem itself as the actant, rather than those two phantasms 'the speaker' and 'the poet') travels by ricochet from "a child / running around on a unicycle" to "where the paths through the elms, the carnivals, begin." This is Ashbery at his most wizardly; shouldn't it be the performing child who is carnivalesque? A small detail, surely, but this virtually aphasic use of language serves to destabilize our faith in knowability as much as the more direct propositions and disclaimers with which the poem opened. And this act required of us, of the readers—the relinquishing of the desire to know—equips us for the poem's final occasion:

      … for though we came
      to life as to a school, we must leave it without graduating
      even as an ominous wind puffs out the sails
      of proud feluccas who don't know where they're headed

This is the most elegant of hoodwinkings; having persuaded us to abandon knowing where we're headed both in the poem's overt rhetoric and covert mechanism (again, his signatorily elusive motion), Ashbery makes us complicit in the spiritual circumstance of the poem: the sorrow of age's procession. This cunningly forced complicity is a gift: we're lured absolutely to that place—that melancholia-suffused lea against time's onslaught—so that we can feel what that is, rather than what it's like. And having gotten us there, he plays one last trick—one which might not have been comprehensible if he hadn't so carefully laid the ground for it in the book's beginning. As we prepare for that mythic water-crossing into the afterworld, we know "only that a motion is etched there, shaking to be free." With such a gesture, returning to the essentiality of time's transformation of action to image, And The Stars … is suddenly apprehensible as a secretly unified whole—and time, like night, "gives more than it takes" ("As One Put Drunk Into The Packet Boat," Self-Portrait): a permanence, something to steer by.

If I mention majestic figures from other disciplines, it's all a way of suggesting what a pure poet Ashbery is, traveling beyond compare. In that same way that we praise a painter for simultaneously laying bare and detonating the possibilities of craft by calling her malerich ('painterly'), Ashbery is consummately dichterich. If language is a medium we pass through, taking what we think we need (and it is), Ashbery is the poet who does give more than he takes: working always to keep the language workable, refusing in the insistence of his motion to allow it to settle into the decrepit fixity of institution.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 349


Costello, Bonnie. "John Ashbery and the Idea of the Reader." Contemporary Literature XXIII, No. 4 (Fall 1982): 493-514.

Examines strategies for establishing meaningful communication between writer and reader in Ashbery's poetry.

Edelman, Lee. "The Pose of Imposture: Ashbery's 'Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.'" Twentieth Century Literature 32, No. 1 (Spring 1986): 95-114.

Discusses problematic aspects of self-reflexivity and representation in "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror."

Fink, Thomas A. "The Comic Thrust of Ashbery's Poetry." Twentieth Century Literature 30, No. 1 (Spring 1984): 1-14.

Examines the function of humor in Ashbery's poetry, especially as evident in elements of hyperbole, absurdity, and linguistic playfulness.

Gregerson, Linda. "Among the Wordstruck." The New York Times Book Review (23 October 1994): 3.

A favorable review of And the Stars Were Shining.

Imbriglio, Catherine. "'Our Days Put on Such Reticence': The Rhetoric of the Closet in John Ashbery's Some Trees." Contemporary Literature XXXVI, No. 2 (Summer 1995): 249-88.

Explores the significance of repressed sexuality and homoeroticism in Some Trees.

Longenbach, James. "Ashbery and Individual Talent." American Literary History 9, No. 1 (Spring 1997): 103-27.

Offers analysis of Ashbery's critical views, poetic style, and assumptions about the relationship between poetry and political protest.

Lundquist, Sara L. "Légèreté et richesse: John Ashbery's English 'French Poems.'" Contemporary Literature XXXII, No. 3 (Fall 1991): 403-21.

Examines the significance of French literary influence and Ashbery's linguistic preoccupations in "French Poems."

Mohanty, S. P. and Jonathan Monroe. "John Ashbery and the Articulation of the Social." Diacritics 17, No. 2 (Summer 1987): 37-63.

Examines the social voice in Ashbery's poetry through analysis of "A Wave" and John Ashbery, a volume of critical essays edited by Harold Bloom.

Norton, Jody, "'Whispers Out of Time': The Syntax of Being in the Poetry of John Ashbery." Twentieth Century Literature 41, No. 3 (Fall 1995): 281-305.

Explores aspects of subjectivity and temporality in Ashbery's poetry in the context of philosophical writings by Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Jacques Derrida.

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