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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.)
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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.
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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 that the poet can see and seize the clutter as fertilizing, "not just the major events but the whole incredible / mass of everything happening simultaneously and pairing off, / channeling itself into history"; experience is wrenched away—is no longer "his"—by the suspect neatness of memory, as by the sacrificial omissions of art, and so these poems are not to record a life, they are not memorials, any more than they are to decorate a tradition, they are not monuments. "What I am writing to say is, the timing, not / the contents, is what matters"—hence almost anything will turn up inside these "parts of the same body," and almost anyone—any pronoun—will become someone else…. Ashbery twitches the text away from personality: "I don't think my poetry is inaccessible … I think it's about the privacy of everyone." And perhaps that is why they present such brutal clarifications: the privacy of everyone is a hard thing to acknowledge, especially when it is staring you from the page, hysterically open to distraction, eager to grab the language of packaging and put it into the perpetuum mobile of poetry. The texts include everything, they leave out only the necessary transitions and gearshifts which we call narrative and which have traditionally governed the decorum of our attention. In such a world, "things overheard in cafes assume an importance previously reserved for letters from the front"—and indeed, the front itself shifts to the back room, the view from the kitchen window, the voices overheard in the next bedroom. Of course no poem can keep pace with "eventuality," with the character and quality of existence as it becomes event—not even Ashbery's poem can satisfy him as to the scope and focus of "the present"—but the zany failures mount up as the only important enterprise, undertaking, overdrive…. (p. 25)
So Ashbery's poems will be meditations on how to write his poems, where to begin in order always to be beginning, without that dying fall of classical recital, instead inscribed upon the evanescence of eternity: "a final flourish / that melts as it stays." Painting and music too will help—take the string quartet:
The different parts are always meddling with each other,
Pestering each other, getting in each other's ways
So as to withdraw skillfully at the end, leaving—what?
A new kind of emptiness, maybe bathed in freshness,
Maybe not. Maybe just a new kind of emptiness.
That is the risk this poetry takes, of course: by jettisoning the traditional baggage of the art and assimilating instead the methods and "morality" of the other arts …, the poet incurs the possibility of "maybe just a new kind of emptiness." But the risk is worth it to Ashbery, who has never dismissed the religious possibility of emptiness—affectlessness, abjection—as the condition of fulfillment…. It is worth what I call the risk and what he would call the necessity of emptiness—boredom, confusion, irritation, even torment—to reach what he undoubtedly and diligently does reach, a world whose terms are refreshed to the point, to the pinnacle, where experience is without anxiety because it is delivered, in both senses of that word: presented and released. A world without anxiety, without repression, without the scandal and the labor of the negative. Or as Ashbery puts it:
Ought to be written about how this affects
You when you write poetry:
The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind
Colliding with the lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its
desire to communicate
Something between breaths, if only for the sake
Of others and their desire to understand you
and desert you
For other centers of communication, so that
May begin, and in doing so be undone.
Richard Howard, "New Ashbery," in New York Arts Journal (copyright © 1977 by Richard W. Burgin), #7, November-December, 1977, pp. 25-6.
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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."
An alternative? Though the poem is always pressing us out of the past, it has no unmediated language for the present, which is as hard to locate as other poets' Edens…. There is no comfort in the provisional, in being open to the rush of things. In fact, one of the most devastating contemporary critiques of randomness in poetry comes in the final moments of Ashbery's poem. Yet it is a critique from within, in a poem open to the vagaries of mind—and from a writer deeply committed to describing the struggles we undergo in describing our lives. This is his unique and special place among contemporary poets. The blurring of personal pronouns, their often indeterminate reference, the clouding of landscapes and crystal balls, are all ways of trying to be true not only to the mind's confusions but also to its resistance of stiffening formulations.
In the distorting self-portrait of Parmigianino, Ashbery found the perfect mirror and the perfect antagonist—a totem of art and the past caught in the act of trying to escape from itself…. Francesco is the indispensable partner in a continuing conversation; yet Ashbery's final reading of the painterly hand in the self-portrait is the boldest stroke of all:
Therefore 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:
Our looking through the wrong end
Of the telescope as you fall back at a speed
Faster than that of light to flatten ultimately
Among the features of the room,…
The pun on chamber, the dizzying transformations of rounded room into telescope and gun barrel, are triumphant tributes to all the contradictions of this poem and the hard-won struggle to be free of them. It would be a shallow reading which sees this poem as a modernist's dismissal of the past. Ashbery translates that topos into radical and embracing human terms. The elation we feel comes from the writer's own unwillingness to take permanent shelter in his work. Any work of art—not just those of the distant past—has designs on us, exposes for what it is our "will to endure." Ashbery builds the awareness of death and change into the very form of his work…. Ashbery admits into the interstices of his poem a great deal of experience—confusion, comedy, befuddlement, preoccupation—in which he takes as much joy as in the "cold pockets / Of remembrance, whispers out of time," which he also celebrates. His withdrawal from the privileged moments is never as regretful or as final as Keats's from his "cold pastoral." Nor is it as rueful as Ashbery's own sense of desertion in "Definition of Blue" where "you, in this nether world that could not be better / Waken each morning to the exact value of what you did and said, which remains." In that earlier poem Ashbery feels diminished and powerless before a "portrait, smooth as glass,… built up out of multiple corrections," which "has no relation to the space or time in which it was lived." In the spaciousness of "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" Ashbery radiates a new confidence in his ability to accommodate what is in the poet's mind: the concentrated poem and its teeming surroundings. In its achieved generosity and fluidity, in its stops and starts and turns, Ashbery's long poem dispels some of the frustrations of language and form, or assimilates them more closely into the anxieties and frustrations of living. (pp. 184-85)
[With] Three Poems Ashbery rounded a critical corner. Its perpetuum mobile style prepared him, when he returned to verse, for a new fluidity, a way to re-admit the self to his poetry. Alive in its present, and determined as a Jack-in-the-Box, that self pops up when any moment of poetic concision threatens to falsify or obliterate it. The discovery comes as a relief, not so much a calculation as a necessity. Leaving things out, "forget as we will, something soon comes to stand in their place. Not the truth, perhaps, but—yourself."
I am talking, then, about complementary gifts or voices in Ashbery's poetry. He has his own deadpan way of putting it: "In the last few years I have been attempting to keep meaningfulness up to the pace of randomness … but I really think that meaningfulness can't get along without randomness and that they somehow have to be brought together." No wonder that the long "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" stands as a centerpiece to his work in the early 1970s; no single short poem could handle such a copious problem. It would be a mistake to see this merely as an aesthetic question, a poet talking about poetry, about the relative virtues of condensed vision and expansive randomness. The emotional coloring that Ashbery gives this conflict, especially in his long poem, suggests psychological dimensions and stresses. Art "leaving things out" involves a sense of melancholy and sacrifice, a restlessness, a threat to vitality.
The Double Dream of Spring is shadowed by such feelings; the short poems of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror often counter them. Together these two books, five years apart, with their different moods, give a sense of the range and playfulness and boldness of Ashbery's emerging work. (pp. 187-88)
In The Double Dream of Spring Ashbery seems absorbed in the forms that lie just behind an experience; the day's events, in "Years of Indiscretion," are "Fables that time invents / To explain its passing." Common phrases are challenged; buried meanings are coaxed out of them so that they surprise us with a life of their own, or chastise us for a sleepy acceptance of the "phraseology we become." Ashbery wants to push past the hardening of life into habit, the way it congeals into patterned phrases…. (p. 188)
I am struck by the frequency with which Ashbery returns in Double Dream to myths of the seasons, as to photographic negatives, for the true contours governing experience—and what's more important, he is looking not for myths of rebirth but for myths of diminution….
Ashbery takes his title The Double Dream of Spring from de Chirico and so puts us on warning that we are stepping through the looking glass into those deep perspectives and receding landscapes of the mind. He leads us, once we are prepared to follow, to yearned-for, difficult states, free of casual distraction….
Does the present exist principally "To release the importance / Of what will always remain invisible?" he asks, with some urgency, in "Fragment." The Double Dream of Spring seems to answer that question in the affirmative. It is Ashbery's most successfully visionary book, however sad its tone. Unlike Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which struggles to include and authenticate the present, Double Dream finds the most striking images in its glimpses of the fables behind our lives, and it most yearns for the state which is both free and deathlike, diminished. (p. 191)
"Soonest Mended"—so goes the title of one of the best of these poems, illustrating a point we can scarcely grasp until we supply the first half of a proverb which has been mimetically suppressed: "least said; soonest mended." Double Dream calls for tight-lipped irony as well as yearning for visionary release. In "Soonest Mended" comic self-awareness and proverbial wisdom are the ways Ashbery finds to deal with the deposits of history and hazard which determine the course of life:
They were the players, and we who had struggled at the game
Were merely spectators, though subject to its vicissitudes
And moving with it out of the tearful stadium, borne on shoulders, at last.
It is entirely in keeping with the tone of this poem that we are left uncertain as to whether we are borne out of the stadium triumphant or dead. Or both. Just as, at the end of "Soonest Mended," action is described as
Preparing, sowing the seeds crooked in the furrow,
Making ready to forget, and always coming back
To the mooring of starting out, that day so long ago.
The brave carelessness here is licensed by some certainty that no matter how many mistakes we make, no matter what happens, we do return to the "mooring of starting out." We can also read this as helplessness. The tone is partly elegiac, owning up to the futility of our efforts, with "mooring" sounding as much like death as a new life. The entire poem has this doubleness of feeling. Its long breathy lines shift quickly from one historical hazard to another; it doesn't take long to get from the endangered Angelica of Ariosto and Ingres to Happy Hooligan in his rusted green automobile. Caught up in a whirligig of historical process, the self has no chance to recover balance, and above all, no conceptual means, no language to do so. Still, the energetic lines breathe the desire to assert ego and vitality. The poem sees the world as so full of bright particulars that no rules of thumb can keep up with them; and so it is fairly bitter about standard patterns of history and learning, sees them only as shaky hypotheses. "Soonest Mended" doesn't yet pretend pleasure in the present, a pleasure Ashbery does experience in later poems; and yet the poem doesn't entirely fall back on dreams of another world. Falling back, not with too much conviction, on the proverbial wisdom of the title, Ashbery has found a middle diction: ready to improvise, yielding to but not swamped by randomness. (pp. 192-93)
[In "Self-Portrait" as well as earlier poems, Ashbery acknowledges] a constellation of dreams perhaps more "real" than "real life" ("the certainty that it / Wasn't a dream"). But the version in "Self-Portrait" is wistful, rather than driven: Ashbery seems open to the varieties of experience, registers more pleasurably the ache of the veiled and ineluctable dream. He makes his bow to an ironic view of the visionary self ("the 'it was all a dream' / Syndrome") before returning to a hidden truth behind colloquial language ("the 'all' tells tersely / Enough how it wasn't"). The present disguises the tempting dream behind Parmigianino's portrait, but disguises it in the "radiance" of the poet's room. No need to choose between the present and the unseen—and in the pressured light of the passing of time, no way to do so.
It is the jumble of everyday pleasures and frustrations that we hear most often in the fluid style of some of the shorter poems of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Even the longer poem "Grand Galop" is almost literally an attempt to keep the poem's accounting powers even with the pace of inner and outer events. Naturally it doesn't succeed. The mind moves in several directions at once, and the poem is partly about the exhaustions and comic waste carried along by the "stream of consciousness":
The custard is setting; meanwhile
I not only have my own history to worry about
But am forced to fret over insufficient details related to large
Unfinished concepts that can never bring themselves to the point
Of being, with or without my help, if any were forthcoming.
At the start of the poem, the mind moves on ahead of some lists of names (weigela, sloppy joe on bun—the end of the line for Whitman's famous catalogues) and then the poem says we must stop and "wait again." "Nothing takes up its fair share of time." Ashbery calls our attention repeatedly, and with frustration rather than exultation, to the fact that the poem's time is not actual time.
"Grand Galop" also laments the generalizing and pattern-making powers which intervene and block our experience of particulars…. Poetry can never be quite quick enough, however grand the "galop," however strong the desire to "communicate something between breaths." This explains some of the qualities of Ashbery's style which trouble readers. What seems strange is not so much what he says as the space between his sentences, the quickness of his transitions. "He" will become "you" or "I" without warning as experiences move close and then farther away, photographs and tapes of themselves. Tenses will shift while the poem refers to itself as part of the past. We feel as if something were missing; we become anxious as if a step had been skipped. So does the poet who, in several of the shorter poems, describes himself as a dazed prologue to someone else's play. (pp. 194-95)
Ashbery, who was on speaking terms with both the formalism of the American 1950s and the unbuttoned verse of the 1960s, is now bold and beyond them. His three most recent books have explored apparently contradictory impulses—a melancholy withdrawal and a bewildered, beguiling openness—which stand in provocative tension with one another. Older readers have tended to find the poems "difficult"; younger readers either do not experience that difficulty or see past it, recognizing gestures and a voice that speak directly to them. Perhaps it is reassuring to them: a voice which is honest about its confusions; a voice which lays claim to ravishing visions but doesn't scorn distraction, is in fact prey to it. Ashbery does what all real poets do, and like all innovators his accents seem both too close and too far from the everyday, not quite what we imagine art to be. He mystifies and demystifies at once. (pp. 198-99)
David Kalstone, "John Ashbery: 'Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror'," in his Five Temperaments: Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, James Merrill, Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery (copyright © 1977 by David Kalstone; used by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1977, pp. 170-99.
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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 distinction is in order, however. There are at least three varieties of surrealism—French, which is arbitrary and antirational, funny, and sexy; Spanish, which is deep, serious, and dark, relying more upon emotional than intellectual logic; and American, which is primarily verbal rather than conceptual—and thus is not properly surrealism at all, but a technical device…. American "surrealism" is a homegrown hybrid which owes its birth to such verbal innovators as Wallace Stevens and Gertrude Stein. It is not concerned with subconscious or preconscious parts of the mind, but involves the intentional and experimental replacement of certain words in a given syntactical pattern with other words that have just as much grammatical rightness being there, but most likely far less logical rightness. (pp. 940-41)
[John Ashbery] performs such secret rites under cover of darkness, no doubt in a ruined garret somewhere on the upper East Side. To my mind the poems in Some Trees most revealing of Ashbery's ultimate technique are those several that are most obviously exercises in the verbally redundant French forms. Such poems as "Pantoum," "Canzone," "Poem," "A Pastoral," and "The Painter" involve repeating selected end words in a complexly-changing but predetermined pattern in every one of several stanzas. If there are six lines to a stanza then there will be six words to use in a different order, one at the end of each line, in each of six stanzas. The seventh stanza will then be three lines long and demand the use of two of these words per line, one in the middle and one at the end. Such poems tend towards arbitrariness and meaninglessness, as any dedicated reader knows; it is almost inevitable that the words take over direction of the poem from the poet. What we end up with is verbal trickiness, a boring pre-form of American surrealism.
That John Ashbery wrote so many of these poems at the beginning of his career is a sure tip-off that his chief preoccupation as poet is with words rather than with meaning. Given this fact, and given his long immersion in the art world, it would not be amiss to say that he is the equivalent in poetry of the abstract expressionists in painting. Among the many parallels between his work and theirs, two especially stand out—a shared devotion to texture and a preoccupation with the art process itself. The devotion to texture is present everywhere in his work, but is especially central in his narrative poems. These are the works most frustrating to most reviewers—one feels always on the verge of understanding the situation but never quite able to. The reason is that these poems exist primarily on the micro level—that is, the smallest details have the greatest accuracy and clarity—and are most baffling on the macro level—we are never sure of the overall situation, the pattern into which the details might fit. Consider the enticing second stanza of the opening poem in the volume:
A fine rain anoints the canal machinery.
This is perhaps a day of general honesty
Without example in the world's history
Though the fumes are not of a singular authority
And indeed are dry as poverty.
Terrific units are on an old man
In the blue shadow of some paint cans
As laughing cadets say, "In the evening
Everything has a schedule, if you can find out what it is."
If you worry about just what that means, what is happening, the stanza will make you furious—as it obviously did many of the book's early reviewers. I would suggest instead that we devote our attention not to the larger question of plot but to the smaller one of detail—prefer the micro, that is, over the macro. When this is done, the stanza becomes thoroughly funny and enjoyable. Of course this process does not give the poem any greater meaning—no matter how we read it, it really doesn't mean anything, in the usual sense of the word. The poem's necessity is textural and verbal rather than expository.
Sometimes, of course, these poems do have meaning in the ordinary sense of the word. When this is so we are likely to be astonished at how little they mean, how small the fire turns out to be given the vast profusion of smoke encountered elsewhere. (pp. 941-42)
The preoccupation with the art process itself, which I have said Ashbery shares with the abstract expressionists, is a chief feature of Houseboat Days. Ashbery has come to write, in the poet's most implicitly ironic gesture, almost exclusively about his own poems, the ones he is writing as he writes about them. The artist becomes his own theoretical critic, caught in the critical lens even at the moment of conception.
Interviewers of poets often ask the question: what gets you started on a poem—is it an idea, a theme, an image, a rhythm, or what? In "Variant," Ashbery not only answers this question—"Sometimes a word will start it," he says—but goes on to exemplify his doctrine. The unseen interlocutor observes that "The way / Is fraught with danger"; Ashbery gratefully accepts the word "fraught" as the text for the rest of his poem, and composes an imagistic and narrative definition of it. Such a poem, and the example was chosen because typical, is highly ironic and self-conscious, and shows the poet's preoccupation with his art.
Poetry can be whatever Ashbery wants it to be, and this freedom or control is applied not just to language, as we have seen in Some Trees, but to the raw material of reality itself. Ashbery agrees with Stevens that the imagination can do whatever it wants with reality, once it is taken into the poem: "You can have whatever you want./… In the sense / Of twisting it to you, through long, spiralling afternoons." It is true that Ashbery occasionally claims to be a realist, a poet of the everyday: "The orchestra is starting to tune up. / The tone-row of a dripping faucet is batted back and forth / Among the kitchen, the confusion outside, the pale bluster / Of the sky, the correct but insidious grass." But this is just a pose; Ashbery is even less of a realist, literalist, than Stevens, as he makes abundantly clear in yet another poem on poetry:
It is argued that these structures address themselves
To exclusively aesthetic concerns, like windmills
On a vast plain. To which it is answered
That there are no other questions than these,
Half squashed in mud, emerging out of the moment
We all live, learning to like it.
The first two-and-a-half lines echo a criticism often directed against Ashbery's poetry. The answer self-consciously reiterates the poet's artistic credo just as it exemplifies it. In working these questions out, Ashbery of course continues to use the real world, its accouterments, its details and texture, as pawns in his game, and so we are still tempted to look for a kind of sense that simply is not there. Oh, sometimes it is—as in the lovely, haunting, and funny poem "Melodic Trains"—but mostly not.
Ashbery's most conspicuous failures come when his typical methods are applied seriously rather than with offhanded charm and wit. The longest poem in Houseboat Days, "Fantasia on 'The Nut-Brown Maid,'" is also the worst. Besides being impenetrable, it is vague, diffuse, vapid, abstract, and boring. What a shame! At his best Ashbery operates very much in the ironic mode as described by Northrop Frye; he is among the first of our poets to arrive there. The fiction writer he most resembles is probably Donald Barthelme, who has the same love of texture and nuance, the same arbitrary sense of humor, the same decadent love of the trivial and the enchanting. (p. 944)
Peter Stitt, in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1978, by the University of Georgia), Winter, 1978.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1328
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 holiday—it would seem—as a necessary escape from the stern task he has set himself.
To the persistent reader John Ashbery reveals himself as a poet of high moral seriousness, an epistemological poet no less, whose work explores the modes, limits, and grounds of true knowledge, and if he can help it, he really doesn't budge from this stance. It's hard work for him to clear away the tangles of language and root out old habits, so that the wood can be seen for the trees, and it's hard work for us, but rewarding, to read this sort of cultivated verse. It hones the mind. Ashbery discloses a moral stance similar to that of a Stoic…. With stringent logic he accents the given: "What is, is what happens." We are condemned to live in the present and also in mutability…. He purifies his verse with this cold fact, chews it over, and achieves his clear flow of thought by means of and around the impediment. Demosthenes-in-training stopping his mouth up with pebbles could do no better…. It's a difficult thing for him, letting the past go. He will despite himself keep trying to warm the past up, trifling with its leftovers, waffling through "Drame Bourgeoise."… In "Collective Dawns" he finds the known-now infinitely preferable to either the Wordsworthian "mill-pond of chill doubt" or the glacier fraught with the loud notes of the cuckoo. (pp. 118-19)
Sometimes his "long spiralling afternoons" barley-sugar into Wallace Stevens' forget-me-not time and the poetry melts into a mush of allusions…. Better Ashbery should fight his own battle with modern means and square up to the twentieth-century embarrassment of being awash in time's flux yet stuck inexorably in the present…. A secure foothold in the ooze, an ethical stance eludes him. He has the planks—the means of saying things—but no platform…. This bailing out of the present, rescuing the known, channeling the flood, salvaging the language, and refusing to bog down in the slough of despond—in sum his poetical labors—makes the experiencing of his work worth-while. Ashbery is a poet, not a philosopher. No original thinker, he builds his edifices out of philosophical driftwood: "A handful of things we know for sure." Moreover he tub-thumps. The dogged craftsmanship makes his poetry watertight, feasible—yare. Afloat. Without self-advertisement yet ambitiously, he reconstructs a great variety of new forms from the old timber, offering us a Pindaric ode in the elegiac mode ("Two Deaths"), occasion poems, fifteenline sonnets, a Romantic ballad based on the "Nut-Brown Maid," a Horatian pastoral, and a mock epic ("Melodic Trains").
Generally speaking, poems could be said to beg to be dissected, their choice bits set aside to be savored later. These poems are built to repel critical evaluation. It's boring to mull over their separate parts most of which are ready-mades, trouvaille, casual remarks, cliché—that sort of thing. Furthermore, if the would-be critic pulls out one unit of thought the rest of the stack threatens collapse. Again most poetry, unlike prose, while it may not necessarily invite it almost always admits paraphrase. These poems seek to explain themselves, to argue from initial premises about the uses and abuses of poetry itself. Criticism uncomfortably housed next door is all but reduced to finding analogies among the neighboring arts.
The syntactical use of long lines of interlacing preformed phrases like chords of music rather than single notes does lead one to make musical analogies. The idea of a movement that catches one up, sweeps one along, and ends in the abandonment of the project to silence is also very similar…. "Syringa" for all its wit is a poem in a minor key. It's a pastoral tragicomedy starring Orpheus with the great Apollo making a guest appearance, Eurydice in a cameo role, and a chorus line of scholars. The word-music on this occasion plaits threads of thought, strings of words, strands of comments into a raveling and unraveling argument for a revival of the occasion poem. This happens but with the Ashberyian addition of a disclaimer: one cannot isolate a single occasion…. "Syringa" is a poem-picture of "flowing, scenery," the latter being how it must be written now, as a kind of film script perhaps? Anyway "Syringa" is very much a Restoration piece suitably witty, droll, and stylish. Orpheus apotheosized as a "bluish cloud with white contours" hovers above it all. No pedagogical centaurs appear, but out of the horse's mouth we learn about the nature of its reality…. Along the way in this book Ashbery jettisons a deal of poetic ballast. Emblems remain, some alliteration and similes are suffered because of their satiric uses. Metaphor, which doubles the mind back into itself and its recollections of other times, things, etc., and synaesthesia, which does this in triplicate, are discouraged. The manufacture of the text itself becomes very important.
These poems celebrate things man-made, the artificial. Nature barely appears and then only in pastoral or theatrical garb. Tissue-paper clouds are at hand and their artificiality has more substance and is longer lasting and more reassuring than the hot-air cumulonimbus variety that one infers hover above us out of reach…. Not only can Ashbery never leave Plato's cave in search of anything, let alone the ineffable, but the shadows on the cavern promise to be more rewarding and more real and readily available than whatever might lie outside. The most grubby dubious artifice offers us more, unashamedly, than all of Mother Nature's elusive offerings. (pp. 119-23)
The aesthetics of this seem to be mannerist eighteenth-century stuff. We make art and it styles things for us. As far as the politics of it goes, Ashbery nurses the Romantic hope that in a man-made or man-defined world everything and anything is possible: "what continues / Does so with our participation and consent." In this, Ashbery's houseboat chugs along in Shelley's splendid wake. Ashbery lines his more ascetic poems with this roseate insulation as wadding however temporary against the gathering chill outside.
The idea nests well in that stylistic box of necessary tricks, the theater: an edifice and an occasion which traps time within itself…. Theatrical time encapsulates one in an ever-present now…. The dry spots in Houseboat Days tend to be little theaters in [this] sense. Rooms, trains, boats, barrels going over Niagara provide not only a carapace against time's corrosions but a cocoon as well where there is room enough and time to gather one's wits and to reflect on events speeded up outside in an Einsteinian-tram-in-Zurich sense. The way time moves his Show Boats along makes Ashbery a modern. It also relates him to the English Romantics, who were ever conscious of the passage and the ways of time. The manner in which he erects facades as poetical shoring against outside realities seems to indicate neo-Augustan as a label. Style bars its door against time. It hobnobs with tradition—a very different thing. The Romantics undertook one-way journeys but not shielded from the elements. Ashbery prefers to take day excursions as a tourist. At heart, one feels, he is urbane, cultivated, a gentleman poet writing for gentlemen—a Restoration man. (pp. 123-24)
Rosemary Johnson, "Paper Boats: Notes on 'Houseboat Days'," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © Poetry in Review Foundation), Spring/Summer; 1978, pp. 118-24.
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