Ashbery, John 1927–
Ashbery is an American poet, dramatist, novelist, editor, and critic. He has sustained an active interest in art and art criticism throughout his career and acknowledges the influence of abstract painting on his verse. Ashbery's poetry has often been criticized for what seems to be intentional obscurity. He has collaborated with James Schuyler on the novel, A Nest of Ninnies. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
I cannot avoid the judgment that the year's best book of poems is Ashbery's Houseboat Days…. The modish eccentricities that once weakly defended this great poet against tradition are now all but gone. Instead, a subtle rhetoric, masking itself in images of transparency and as a style of amazing limpidity, evades and reinterprets poetic tradition as sinuously and persuasively as did the rhetoric of Frost and of Stevens. Four poems in particular are likely to impose themselves upon the canon: "Loving Mad Tom," "Wet Casements," the Orphic elegy, "Syringa," and the very ambitious and mellow longer poem, "Fantasia on 'The Nut-Brown Maid'," which sustains comparison with the magnificent "Fragment" of "The Double Dream of Spring." "Wet Casements," which is as powerful as "Soonest Mended" in that volume, is a short meditation that immediately establishes its inevitability. Ashbery has suffered both from the aura of his supposed "school" and from the incomprehension of readers who weary too quickly of authentic poetic difficulty. The difficulty that remains in Ashbery's poetry is inseparable from its glory. (pp. 24-5)
Harold Bloom, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1977 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 26, 1977.
Most of the poems in Houseboat Days which I can make out at all are … deliberations on the meaning of the present tense, its exactions and falsifications, its promises and reward. "There are no other questions than these, / half-squashed in mud, emerging out of the moment / we all live, learning to like it"—Ashbery is often painfully clear as to what he would wring from his evasive experience ("what I am probably trying to do is to illustrate opacity and how it can suddenly descend over us … it's a kind of mimesis of how experience comes to me"), and the pain is there in the tone, now goofy and insolent, then again tender and self-deprecating, vulnerable but not without its gnomic assertions ("It is the nature of things to be seen only once"), various but not without a consistent grimace ("It's all bits and pieces, spangles, patches, really; nothing / stands alone").
The position from which these proceedings flow and flare is rather the converse of what I read in the [Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror]; in that book, the problem was how to deal with the world—if it is all there, then how do I get into it, how do I find a place in what is already given and, if I am already there, how can there be room for all that besides? But in [Houseboat Days] there is a cool resolution about the dialectic of self and other; the poet seems more or less content (more or less sad) to be at grips with "this tangle of impossible resolutions and irresolutions," but only for now. The trouble, and his subject, is that the moment passes, that now becomes then, losing everything in the process. Whatever is easy-moving, free and pleasant tends to calcify, or to rot, leaving dust and ash on the mind's plate: "The songs decorate our notion of the world / and mark its limits, like a frieze of soap-bubbles."
Whence a prosody of intermittence and collage; no such conventional markings as rhyme or repetition—rather, seamless verse, jammed rather than enjambed, extended rather than intense; it must go on and on to keep the whole contraption from coming round again, and to work upon us its deepest effect, which is a kind of snake-charming…. [The title poem] refers specifically, I believe, to living in the present, one's domicile upon an inconstant element, one's time at the mercy and the rigor of the stream: "The mind / is so hospitable, taking in everything / like boarders, and you don't see until / it's all over how little there was to learn / once the stench of knowledge has dissipated …" The misery in this poem, as in all the rest, is that of being deprived by the past and the future of the present; it is only now...
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Familiar notions about a poet's development won't quite apply to Ashbery's work. He doesn't return to objects, figures and key incidents which, as the career unfolds, gather increasing symbolic resonance. Nor do his poems refer to one another in any obvious way. Ashbery writes autobiography only inasmuch as he writes about the widening sense of what it is like to gain—or to try to gain—access to his experience. The present is the poem. "I think that any one of my poems might be considered to be a snapshot of whatever is going on in my mind at the time…." (p. 171)
In his images of thwarted nature, of discontinuity between present and past, Ashbery has turned his agitation into a principle of composition. From the start he has looked for sentences, diction, a syntax which would make these feelings fully and fluidly available. When he used strict verse forms, as he did in much of his first book, Some Trees, it was always with a sense of their power to explore rather than to certify that he was a poet. (pp. 171-72)
The long title poem of [Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror] is in every sense a major work, a strong and beautiful resolution of besetting and important problems. Ashbery had already broached these problems in The Double Dream of Spring, in which he characteristically approached the world as a foreigner, sometimes in the role of explorer, sometimes as a pilgrim, and almost always as someone bewildered by the clutter of a situation which, wryly phrased, "could not be better." The world of that book is often divided, out of bristling necessity, between inside and outside, between we and a dimly identified they…. (p. 173)
A lot could be said about Ashbery's entrance into poems and his habit of tentative anchorage: "As on a festal day in early spring," "As One Put Drunk into the Packet Boat" (title: first line of Marvell's "Tom May's Death"). Such openings are reticent, similes taking on the identity of another occasion, another person—a sideways address to their subject or, in the case of "Self-Portrait," a way of dealing with temptation. The speaker in "Self-Portrait" appears to "happen" upon Parmigianino's painting as a solution to a problem pondered before the poem begins. At first glimpse the glass of art and the face in the portrait offer him just the right degree of self-disclosure and self-assertion, the right balance of living spirit and the haunting concentrated maneuvers of art. The judicious give-and-take appeals to him: thrust and swerve; toward and away; protect and advertise. (This is, by the way, one of the best descriptive impressions of a painting I know.) That balanced satisfaction never returns. What at first comforts him, the face "in repose," prompts an unsettling fear: "It is what is / Sequestered." This is the first full sentence of the poem—brief, shocked and considered, after the glancing descriptive phrases. An earlier draft of the lines was weaker: "protected" rather than "sequestered" and the word placed unemphatically at the end of the line, as if some of the menace to be sensed in the finished portrait hadn't yet surfaced.
From then on the poem becomes, as Ashbery explains it in a crucial pun, "speculation / (From the Latin speculum, mirror)," Ashbery's glass rather than Francesco's. All questions of scientific reflection, capturing a real presence, turn instantly into the other kind of reflection: changeable, even fickle thought. The whole poem is a series of revisions prepared for in the opening lines, where in Parmigianino's receding portrait he imagines first that "the soul establishes itself," then that "the soul is a captive." (pp. 176-77)
"The soul is not a soul." Acting on an earlier hint that Parmigianino's mirror chose to show an image "glazed, embalmed," Ashbery sees it in its hollow (overtones of burial) rather than in the neutral "space intended." "Our moment of attention" draws sparks between the glazed surface of the portrait and the poet's transient interest which awakens it, and places notions like the soul irredeemably in the eye of the beholder. When the poet looks at this ghostly double, alive in its mirroring appeal, the emerging fear comes across…. (pp. 177-78)
Throughout "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" the poet speaks to the portrait as in easy consultation with a familiar, but with an ever changing sense of whether he is addressing the image, trapped on its wooden globe, or addressing the free painter standing outside his creation, straining to capture a real presence, restraining the power to shatter what may become a prison…. Philosophic questions mount, but always apprehended through gestures, new expressions glimpsed as one stares at the painting—here a glint of self-mockery, as the painter absorbed with prowess finds himself trapped by his medium after all. "But your eyes proclaim / That everything is surface…. / There are no recesses in the room, only alcoves." The window admits light, but all sense of change is excluded, even "the weather, which in French is / Le temps, the word for time." (pp. 178-79)
[There is] a series of struggles with the past, with "art," with the notion of "surface," with the random demands of the present—struggles which are not only at the heart of this poem but a paradigm of Ashbery's work. Parmigianino's portrait has to compete with the furniture of the mind confronting it: the poet's day, memories, surroundings, ambitions, distractions…. There is a rhythm to reading this poem, however wandering it may seem. We experience it as a series of contractions and expansions of interest in the painting, depending upon how much the poet is drawn to its powers of foreshortening and concentration, and alternately how cramped he feels breathing its air. The transitions between sections are marked as easy shifts in inner weather, opposed to the weatherless chamber of Parmigianino's portrait…. (pp. 179-80)
[What happens] when we start to imagine the life of cities behind the surface of a work of art, in this case the sack of Rome which was going on where Francesco was at work; Vienna where Ashbery saw the painting in 1959; New York where he is writing his poem? These are ways Ashbery has of summoning up the countless events which nourished the painting and his response to it. That outside life, again imagined in terms of risk, adventure, voyages, can be profoundly disturbing—a life not palpable in a "finished" work.
a chill, a blight
Moving outward along the capes and peninsulas
Of your nervures and so to the archipelagoes
And to the bathed, aired secrecy of the open sea….
Such images focus the problem of how much life is lived in and outside a work of art. There is no point in disentangling what is hopelessly intertwined. The images flow toward and counter one another, and the reader accumulates a bewildering sense of what it is to be both fulfilled and thwarted by his own grasped moments of vision (all attempts at order, not just artistic creation, Ashbery tries to remind us). Francesco's portrait has the capacity to make us feel at home; we "can live in it as in fact we have done." Or "we linger, receiving / Dreams and inspirations on an unassigned / Frequency." But at another moment the portrait seems like a vacuum drawing upon our plenty, "fed by our dreams." If at one point the mind straying from the conical painting is like a balloon bursting, not much later the straying thoughts are imagined as wayward, even sinister progeny of the painting: the balloon has not burst at all. "Actually / The skin of the bubble-chamber's as tough as / Reptile eggs."
Struggling with the past, with art and its completeness, Ashbery is also struggling with the impulses behind his own writing at the very moment of writing. (pp. 181-82)
By the closing pages of the poem two irreconcilable views of "living" have proposed themselves. Parmigianino's appears to be a "Life-obstructing task." ("You can't live there.") More than that, the portrait exposes the poet's own efforts in the present:
Our time gets to be veiled, compromised
By the portrait's will to endure. It hints at
Our own, which we were hoping to keep hidden….
When "will to endure" and "life-obstructing" are identified with one another, as they are here in describing our daily fiction-making activities, the psychological contradictions are themselves almost unendurable. Imagining is as alien and miraculous as the ambivalent image he finds for it: "A ship / Flying unknown colors has entered the harbor." Our creations, torn out of our hands, seem installed "on some monstrous, near / Peak, too close to ignore, too far / For one to intervene." Another way of looking at it: "the way of telling" intrudes "as in the game where / A whispered phrase passed around the room / Ends up as something completely different."
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Ashbery is generally viewed as such a radical innovator, so thoroughly nouveau a poet, that perhaps the most surprising thing is how little his methods have changed during the intervening years. He has become somewhat more consistently good, and his work is now more allusive (not more illusive) and resonant than it was; essentially, however, we may say that this poet was precociously born nearly fully formed.
Ashbery is most notable, perhaps, for his legendary obscurity—that feature of his work which has led so many critics into calling him a surrealist. That the poet has spent so much of his life living and working in Paris seems to lend credence to this identification. An elementary...
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John Ashbery offers the reader a sort of Pilgrim's Progress [in Houseboat Days]: one may indulge with him in the frivolities of Vanity Fair, or one may follow his very rigorous trains of thought about the nature of modern poetry itself. (p. 118)
This reader prefers the Roman side of Ashbery to the Rococo, for when he tries his hand at political bread and circuses, there is about it something sinister and arrogant. He nabokovs us, with a wild goose chase after the likes of Daffy Duck or a glut of the sugary confections of "Valentine." The gyrations of "Pyrography" grate less, but it's still a pastiche of Americana—a papier-mâché carousel. Ashbery takes his busman's...
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