John Ashbery Ashbery, John (Vol. 15) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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. An experimental poet, Ashbery writes verse characterized by obscure syntax and elusive imagery. He has collaborated with James Schuyler on a novel, A Nest of Ninnies. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Harold Bloom

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ashbery's resource has been to make a music of the poignance of withdrawal. So, in [As You Came from the Holy Land], the "end of any season" that concludes the first stanza is deliberately too partial a synecdoche to compensate for the pervasive absences of the ironies throughout the stanza. Ashbery's turnings-against-the-self are wistful and inconclusive, and he rarely allows a psychic reversal any completeness. His origins, in the holy land of western New York state, are presented here and elsewhere in his work with an incurious rigidity that seems to have no particular design on the poet himself, characteristically addressed as "you." The next stanza emphasizes Ashbery's usual metonymic defense of isolation (as opposed to the Stevensian undoing or the Whitmanian regression), by which signs and impulses become detached from one another, with the catalog or census completing itself in the reductive "writing down of names," in which "down" takes on surprising difference and force. The third stanza, one of Ashbery's most radiant, marks the poem's daemonization, the American Counter-Sublime in which Ashbery, like [Wallace] Stevens, is so extraordinarily at home. Ashbery's mingled strength and weakness, indeed his deliberate pathos, is that he knowingly begins where Childe Roland ended, "free to wander away" yet always seeing himself as living "the history of someone who came too late" while sensing that "the time is ripe now." Studying his...

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Charles Molesworth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The first few books by John Ashbery contained a large proportion of a poetry of inconsequence. Borrowing freely from the traditions of French surrealism, and from his friends Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch, Ashbery tried out a fairly narrow range of voices and subjects. Subject matter, or rather the absence of it, helped form the core of his aesthetic, an aesthetic that refused to maintain a consistent attitude toward any fixed phenomena. The poems tumbled out of a whimsical, detached amusement that mixed with a quizzical melancholy. This aesthetic reached an extreme with The Tennis Court Oath (1962), a book in which no poem makes even the slightest attempt to marshal a rational context or an identifiable argument. Line follows line without the sheerest hint of order or apparent plan…. With the exception of The Tennis Court Oath, Ashbery's first four commercially published books (the others are Some Trees [1956], Rivers and Mountains [1966], and The Double Dream of Spring [1970]) included some poems with interpretable meanings and recognizable structures. But reading the first four books together, one is struck by how precious are those poems that do make poetic sense, surrounded as they are by the incessant chatter of the poems of inconsequence. Slowly, however, it appears as if Ashbery was gaining confidence for his true project, and, as his work unfolds, an indulgent reader can see how it needed those aggressively banal "experiments" in nonsense to protect its frailty. Ashbery's later poetry often uses the traditions of prose discourse, but instead of a poetry of "statement" he has evolved a most tenuous, unassertive language. The first four books, one feels, would have turned out insufferably banal, or perhaps would have remained altogether unwritten, if Ashbery had faced his subject directly or made too various or rigorous demands on his limited language. (p. 163)

In some of the poems in [Some Trees], we see a straightforward whimsy such as that often used by Kenneth Koch. The humor remains deadpan, the juxtapositions being between the high-minded expectations of "art" and the flat, unheroic irony of the disaffected speaker…. Ashbery also includes a few examples of a favorite exercise of the socalled New York school of poets—the formula poem in which a simple grammatical structure is repeated over and over with bizarre language. This method of generating whimsy may well owe its origin to the surreal concern with objectif hasard, where the consciously selected "format" is juxtaposed to whatever chance associations the writer can release…. "The vale of dim wolves" and the tragic waltz on "the spitting housetops" [in "He"] typify the imagery of Ashbery's early poetry: arbitrary, coy, disaffected, "smart." Moreover, the arbitrary continuation of the poem lies at the center of Ashbery's aesthetic, which seems a flirtation with nihilism, the fag end of an autotelic art that apotheosizes symbolism's elevation of style over content. The stochastic movement of the poem reminds one of the music of John Cage; the levelling of values suggests the painting of Andy Warhol. (pp. 164-65)

Ashbery's poetry sidles up to and slips away from meaning, as each line clearly links to the one before and after it, but the overall context remains vague and elliptical. Increasingly Ashbery resorts to the contextual devices of prose: pronominals, appositive and subordinate clauses, logical coordinates, and so forth. But at the same time certain "poetic" devices come to the fore, for example, startling similes, metaphoric verbs, ambiguous suspensions of predicates, and highly figurative language—what Ashbery calls "the great 'as though.'" Often the element of play in his poetics causes Ashbery to drift into a boring "castles in the air" approach, as if he were testing the limits of significance; likewise, he can become ponderous when his poetry takes on a pseudophilosophical cast where irony ought to be operating but a sodden rumination drains off the flow of wit…. Each decadent style [suggests Havelock Ellis] must be seen against a classical style from which it has "fallen down," and throughout Ashbery's work we catch the dying echoes of English romanticism, especially of those poets most haunted by the past, Wordsworth and Shelley. These echoes are spawned by Ashbery's relation to language and meaning, a relation that is both tenuous and diffident, because his feelings are evanescent, and offhanded, and condescending, because his utterance is derivative.

In many ways, Rivers and Mountains is Ashbery's most frustrating book, for it avoids the total meaninglessness of The Tennis Court Oath yet lacks the richness of The Double Dream of Spring…. "The Skaters," [however,] is in many ways the quintessential Ashbery poem, the epitome of his career. Mixing bland, straightforwardly prosaic passages with the most inane, jumbled poetry of inconsequence, "The Skaters" is a nervous tour de force, a paean to solipsism and an anguished cry against its imprisonments…. [A distinctive feature of Rivers and Mountains] is the poet's tendency to break up the flow of surreal images with occasional axioms, though these sometime take the form of bemused rhetorical questions or half-resuscitated clichés. This contributes to the "literary" feel of Ashbery's antiliterary attack on meaningful structure and universalizing particulars. (pp. 165-67)

["The Skaters"] introduces clearly one of Ashbery's most insistent self-questionings: what should he put in, and what leave out?… But most evident here is Ashbery's fear of the banal, the "dense or silly," as well as his craving for the truly fresh, the "novel or autocratic," and more importantly his sense that it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between them. The resort to surrealism can be seen as a response to this fear, for surrealism's levelling of values mixes the mysterious and the mundane, and so seeks to solve the problem by embracing it. At the same time, the impulse toward inconsequence can be seen as an elaborate flight, a defensive reaction against this fear of meaninglessness; thus the poet celebrates his own "carnivorous" quest for the meaning he knows will always elude him—unless he abandons his search and accepts reality as it is. (pp. 167-68)

Other hallmarks of Ashbery's style show up in "The Skaters" and throughout Rivers and Mountains: most noticeably, a fear of social reality and a dire, overwrought emotionalism. These are central to the problem of putting in and leaving out, for apparently Ashbery is far from thoroughly comfortable in the role of aesthete or plangent late romantic. The very ambitiousness of "The Skaters" indicates he wants to address a wide spectrum of reality, even if large hunks of modern-day reality are simply not assimilable to his style and he must resort to rhetorical questioning…. (p. 168)...

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Calvin Bedient

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The manner [of "Fantasia on 'The Nut-Brown Maid'" in Houseboat Days] defies the matter. It is itself a "new season," a joyful performance of dazed thought. If the subject matter is "nothing," or the loss of what Wallace Stevens called "the first idea," the imagination's print on things, the language leaves its own unique print. The language itself is the "content," the difficulty we find in getting hold of the matter is the poetry. Here, as before, Ashbery goes for the music possible in confused logic and syntax. (His facility at this divine game is now marvelous.) His originality, in part, is to slip disorder into the very idiom of intellectual competence, with its distinctions and comparisons, its forensic...

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Jonathan Holden

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Ashbery is the first American poet to successfully carry out the possibilities of analogy between poetry and "abstract expressionist" painting. He has succeeded so well for two reasons: he is the first poet to identify the correct correspondences between painting and writing; he is the first poet to explore that analogy who has possessed the skill to produce a first-rate "abstract-expressionist" poetry, a poetry which is as beautiful and sturdy as the paintings of Willem de Kooning….

[It] is perhaps Ashbery's work as an editor, his ability to write good prose, which lends the paragraphs of his verse their architectonic quality, a relentless sense of being "about" something...

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Henry M. Sayre

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Much modern poetry shows a predilection for weak closure of line, an open-endedness which] values the "natural" (or its illusion) over the artful, the openness of the discourse of everyday life and the common man over the seemingly artificial, even elitist conventions of traditional, closed poetic forms…. The ultimate coherence and unity which poetic closure announces, the sense of a completed and whole design of lasting weight and significance that it prompts, has increasingly come to be regarded as fraudulent—if not fraudulent, then at least frivolous. (p. 39)

The "open" poem is, from [the point of view of American New Criticism], an "anti-poem" because it is not a self-contained text,...

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Edmund White

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

For a number of years John Ashbery has been tackling the long poem…. [In] As We Know Ashbery has come up with his most original solution to this technical problem and one best suited to the idiosyncracies of his genius. The new book opens with "Litany," a 68-page poem printed in two separate columns; as the author's note puts it, "The two columns of 'Litany' are meant to be read as simultaneous but independent monologues." One reads a bit of one, then of the other, and every so often one stops to compare adjacent passages.

If I say this form is best suited to his genius, I do so because I believe it is the ideal transcription of Ashbery's sense of things: a mental space humming with signal...

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Harold Bloom

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Ashbery's [As We Know] is certainly his most ambitious [collection]; it may even be his best so far. My tentativeness stems from its being two books at once. First comes Litany, a highly problematic and at moments magnificent long poem …, in two quite separate columns. Or is it two long poems resolutely refusing congress with one another, while running side by side? Then come 40-odd shorter poems, lyrics, and meditations, of which at least the following are anything but problematic, and indeed are superb: "Silhouette," "As We Know," "Flowering Death," "My Erotic Double," "Knocking Around," "Late Echo," "Tapestry," and "The Sun." Those eight poems stand with the best of Ashbery, and one in...

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David Bromwich

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Poets define their own historical moment by exhibiting their allegiance to some historical myth. John Ashbery … has chosen the myth of the Golden Age. Such an age can be named only when it is past. Ours, says Mr. Ashbery, is a Silver Age, an age of decline; and the title of his new book ["As We Know"] is a compressed statement of the regret that colors all his moods: We know too much; not enough remains for us to make or do. In a Golden Age, as Mr. Ashbery knows, we get "The Iliad," or "Song of Myself"—in a Silver Age, the curious felicities of Horace and the Alexandrians, or of Mr. Ashbery's recent work. He will, of course, puzzle some of his readers by regarding himself in this light: he has often seemed...

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Denis Donoghue

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

On a first reading [of "Litany"] I read the left-hand monologue complete, all three sections, without even adverting to what was happening on the right-hand side of the page. Then the same for that side. On a second reading I switched from left to right at the end of each section. I can't report much difference. One can read each page as it appears, but that would be perverse, because the sentences rarely end with the page. The two voices are not as fully differentiated as the "He" and "She" of "Fantasia on 'The Nut-Brown Maid'" in Ashbery's Houseboat Days (1977), but the differences are enough to show that B is more ample, more opulent than A, more explicit, more in command of the feelings. A and B are my...

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