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.)
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 own habitual expression in his prose Three Poems, he had compared himself explicitly to Childe Roland at the Dark Tower. Here also, his Sublime sense that a Stevensian reality is happening in the war of the sky against the mind is necessarily obscured by a sunset akin to Roland's "last red leer."
Ashbery's finest achievement, to date, is his heroic and perpetual self-defeat,… [such self-defeat] pioneers in undoing the mode of transumption that Stevens helped revive. Ashbery's allusiveness is transumptive rather than conspicuous, but he employs it against itself, as though determined to make of his lateness a desperate cheerfulness. In the final stanza of As You Came from the Holy Land, the most characteristic of Shelleyan-Stevensian metaphors, the fiction of the leaves, is duly revealed as a failure ("taken up and shaken again / put down in weak rage"); but the metalepsis substituted for it is almost a hyperbole of failure, as presence and the present fall together "in the gap of today filling itself / as emptiness is distributed." The two lines ending the poem would be an outrageous parody of the transumptive mode if their sad dignity were not so intense. Ashbery, too noble and poetically intelligent to subside into a parodist of time's revenges, flickers on "like a great shadow's last embellishment." (pp. 205-06)
Harold Bloom, "In the Shadow of the Shadows: For Now," in his A Map of Misreading (copyright © 1975 by Oxford University Press, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Oxford University Press, New York, 1975, pp. 193-206.∗
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...
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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 withThe 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 , Rivers and Mountains , and The Double Dream of Spring ) 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)
Ashbery's Rivers and Mountains demonstrated that he was in many ways still our most private and our most public poet, an egoist and an exile. But the style was becoming clearer with each book, and the paradoxes, cultural and poetic, were intensifying. Ashbery's poetry had attained the acme of defensive irony, yet it also offered a way beyond what had become such a limiting aesthetic. Even if Ashbery could not decide what to put in and what to leave out, at least he had clearly identified this as the problem; however, as the later books were to show, stating the problem did not always reduce it, let alone dispense with it. "All right. The problem is that there is no new problem," as he says in the opening of the last section of Three Poems (1972). What saved Ashbery from the dessication of defensive irony was not just his hunger for innovation, or his return to romantic themes, but his willingness to come round (and round and round) onto the sources of his own feelings, as well as to speak openly about the nonappearance of feeling. We can even speculate that his sense of an audience grew more secure and slightly more public, and he slowly began to abandon his sense of being no more than a coterie poet. But we shouldn't make too much of this; the hermeticism is part of his project, and Ashbery will probably never achieve the freewheeling humor of Kenneth Koch or the feckless self-definition of Frank O'Hara.
Much of the particular feel of Ashbery's poetry comes from the tension between its proselike discursiveness and the random, sometimes elliptical tenuousness of its associate gatherings. The "self" in a typical Ashbery poem will almost stumble over a defensive displacement of what is really affecting him; at the same time, reticence never appears as a real possibility. This self wants your attention, but he is counting on your good taste not to inquire too rigorously or peremptorily. The author-reader contract is a conspiratorial one for Ashbery, as he writes not simply for those "in the know," but for those who can dally at will. (pp. 169-70)
But something else that makes up the feel of Ashbery's poetry—it is both the cause and effect of its distinctive quality—can best be described as its essentially proselike movement. Ashbery eschews the ordinary lyricism of verse, seldom bothering with rhyme or alliteration or strict meter. At the same time the prosaic run of his sentences is neither Pateresque nor euphuistic. This prose quality goes hand in hand with the flat, affectless tone as well as with the wan, etiolated attitude. The run of his argument, the flow of the poem's display of itself, suggests a ruminative impulse at work. Very seldom do the metaphors result from the pressure of emotion, and we miss the metermaking argument that Emerson asked of poetry. Often the metaphors and similes seem illustrative rather than functional, supplied to the reader as a courtesy, lest the sinuosities of the ego's search for a balance between a too-ready order and a hopeless chaos weary him beyond limits. This part of Ashbery's aesthetic is clearly pushed to extremes in his Three Poems, where the dense Jamesian prose is studded with clichés. Obviously Ashbery felt the ordinary reader's demands, for fresh images and authentic if not desperate emotions, could be utterly denied…. Three Poems isn't a hoax, despite the self-indulgence of its format and its seeming refusal to mediate its feelings into a language public enough to allow response. The work's main concern is the theme of individuation, the reemergence of a new self out of the old. This theme, central to much contemporary American poetry, is of course an important modernist preoccupation as well. With Ashbery, the temporal aspects of the theme emerge forcefully, and his book becomes a severe meditation on time—the trappings of time as well as the trap of temporality. In fact, the two tutelary deities seem to be Walt Whitman and Marcel Proust. The poem seeks to embrace contradictions by recovering the past; but the recovery, or at least the attempt to recover, throws up such a welter of conflicting and unresolved emotions that the confusions of the self, rather than its individuation, become the dominant focus. (pp. 171-72)
Despite its circuitous structure, Three Poems does have at least a partial climax and resolution, though its third and final part, "The Recital," returns to a questioning and questing mood. It's in the middle section, "The System," that Ashbery adduces a tentative "lesson," for the book does have a moral hunger at its core, obscured though it often is by epistemological complexity and aesthetic play. (p. 174)
The middle section of Three Poems is Ashbery's grandest attempt to answer the unresolved problems, problems of mind and self and value that are the legacy of English romanticism. In many ways this is Ashbery's most serious writing, where his project is most insistently questioned; but at the same time it is where his defensiveness is most perplexing. We can understand his nervousness, his radical ambiguity, and his polymorphous syntax only if we grant that the book is a grand elliptical commentary on a problem that is never directly stated. As such, this section presents the reader with the central difficulty in reading Ashbery: one senses an enormous uneasiness, but the high level of play and the almost choking egocentricity of the language call into question the author's ultimate seriousness. Should the reader be convinced of the validity, let alone the lucidity, of Ashbery's vision, he still must grapple with how this vision can be mediated into the world of his everyday experience. The complexity, in other words, might argue not so much for a long tradition of meaning, or a shared cultural crisis, as for a unique, idiosyncratic formulation that forbids any social application of whatever solace or transformation it might putatively offer. (p. 175)
[The] idealism of Ashbery continues to be his first burden and his final blessing…. [Three Poems] is studded with willed and longed-for consolations, but unremitting dolor is finally its major tone.
Ashbery's Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) contains a mix of poems and one masterpiece, the title poem. There are even a few lyrics that seem almost "regular," as if they could have been written by any number of other poets; they have more or less expectable metaphoric structures and thematic content, and their language is scarcely surreal. This group includes "Fear of Death," "Mixed Feelings," and "As One Put Drunk into the Packet Boat," and these poems show how far behind are the puerilities of The Tennis Court Oath. There is another group of poems that reads like a series of glosses on the complex meditations of Three Poems: "Ode to Bill," "Voyage to the Blue," and "Grand Galop." The last of these presents the most succinct expression of Ashbery's concerns and strategies, though it is itself hardly a concise poem…. "Grand Galop" … skillfully weaves a set of reflections together with musings on the very act of gathering and sorting and releasing such reflections. The poem clarifies much that was baffling and unproductive in the earlier books. However, there are at least two poems of inconsequence in Self-Portrait. "Sand Pail" and "Foreboding," and the dogged nonsense of these two is at least fitfully present in some other poems as well, the "Farm" sequence, for example. So it is too early to announce that Ashbery has abandoned completely the practice of surrealism in its most inconsequential aspects. But Ashbery does seem more intent on circling reality than on arbitrarily dipping into its recesses and surfaces, as if he has realized (and commendably accepted his realization) that the search for patterns is, at the very least, more interesting than the willful neglect of all consequentialness.
With his masterpiece, "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," his circlings become majestic. As the title suggests, this poem is a meditation on solipsism, but it is also a cry against temporality as well as a celebration of the commonplace attempts we make to overcome its ravages. The poem is unusual in several respects, at least for Ashbery. For example, it is a rare instance of his announcing a fixed subject for a poem, in this case the Renaissance painter Parmigianino's masterpiece of "distorted" perspective. Also, Ashbery quotes not only Vasari on Parmigianino's work, but a modern art historian as well, gracefully blending in these "objective" reports with his own thoroughly subjective reading of the painting…. But what provides the masterly dimension of the work is its philosophical seriousness. Ashbery's connoisseur's eye and his deep affection and puzzlement in the face of Parmigianino's art have found ample expression through a poetry that draws on both the "ordinary language" philosophy of the British tradition and the phenomenology of modern French and German thinkers. But the philosophical reflections, questions, and formulations are all lightly cast; the poem never resorts to a technical vocabulary. And the meditation on art serves admirably to focus the poem's energies as they arise out of a grappling with everyday experience and the "classic" problems of epistemology and time. (pp. 176-77)
[What] art offers, especially an art redeemed from temporal dissolution, is a radical form of "otherness," an evidence of another human will and consciousness, much like ourselves perhaps, but insistently other, hence again mundane and mysterious. This otherness spreads out from the "enigmatic finish" of art to our common activities…. This is the poem's central insight, its highest truth, and its most reassuring consolation, suspended as the poem is between slight and profound changes, near and remote distances. "The ordinary forms of daily activity" have attracted Ashbery all along, as if the aesthete in him needed just this ballast to steady him in the swells of self-exploration. (pp. 178-79)
The absence of sustaining warmth and integrating knowledge will always be Ashbery's true subject, his lasting concern; for him nothing is more fundamental. The surfaces of mundane reality are reality, yet only our much more than superficial reflections can make us realize that, and Ashbery's poetry will probably always be suspended between this admission of defeat and a calm claim of victory. (p. 179)
Charles Molesworth, "'This Leaving-Out Business': The Poetry of John Ashbery" (originally published in Salmagundi, Nos. 38-39, Summer-Fall, 1977), in his The Fierce Embrace: A Study of Contemporary American Poetry (reprinted by permission of the University of Missouri Press; copyright © 1979 by the Curators of the University of Missouri), University of Missouri Press, 1979, pp. 163-83.
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 pointings and persuasions. Urbane, outwardly reasonable, his procedures imply (with very little effort) an objective order of communication that the slippages among the clauses, the peculiarity of the comparisons, or the twists of tone and word subvert….
Now, on first reading [the poem's opening line] (or almost any other Ashbery passage), we catch the end of an idea here, another there; some deep, probable coherence suggests itself, but exact persuasion fails. Yet the lack of exact persuasion in our lives is what Ashbery is about. It is in its seeming to make less sense than it should that the magic of such writing consists. Maybe we are somewhat at sea as we read it, and straight "discussion" might prove a cove; but this obscure discursiveness, we sense, is wonderfully both sea and cove. Not least, we see, we receive the gift of language's varying lights and shadows of meaning and feeling even where shadows are said to stand straight out and light grab its due. True, the feeling is overwhelmingly one of disorientation. (This, again, is where the manner melds into the matter.) But it is feeling nonetheless and we are in a universe of poetry. (p. 162)
Ashbery's discursive momentum—indefatigable, inexhaustible, carrying on past every hiatus and surprise, in a diction now drily slangy, now doctoral, now eloquent—is the true protagonist of his work: the mind as verbal resource, as a fertility (but not a prolixity) of constructions, vocabulary, rhythms, comments…. [Of course, it is true] that the dialogue form of "Fantasia," though without deep differentiations of identity, introduces at least the index of human separateness and exchange. You even begin—can it be?—to feel fond of these two, who seem to have to talk, as we do, and who endear themselves by flashes of humor and pique. But the manner they share is, by the fact that they share it, the only character of the poem. Overriding all the other qualities of this very oddly compounded manner—the whimsy, petulance, pedantry, romantic strangeness, yearning, fantasy, blasé sophistication, mockery—is a volubility belied by the actual secretiveness of the poetry and which is eloquent of the predicament of needing very much to speak but of being so little certain what to say.
Ashbery has accepted his self-consciousness as a modern man and poet and hyped it up to make a fate of it. He forms from it a glass cage over which reflections of the outer world glide with ambiguous inwardness…. True, the title poem of his last collection, "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," overshadows in its first ninty-nine lines everything else he has done, and for the simple, if unforeseeable, reason that it exposes a mind equal to every subtlety of appearance, a genius for revelatory accuracy. This poet of subjective play encounters Parmigianino's self-portrait and, curiously, he seizes upon it powerfully. You are blind, he sees. His description of it is preternaturally profound. Now, what wells to the surface of this description is "otherness" …—and Ashbery is precisely a poet of "otherness." Few objects ever in the world could be so well calculated to release his divinatory powers as this particular painting. Where else would he find equal exterior provocation? So evidently we must resign ourselves, as he perhaps does, to his usual subjective, freehand evocation of otherness, through reason as dream, narrative as fantasy.
Inside this subjective sphere, the point of purchase is the oxymoronic seriousness of rhetoric, or rhetoric as otherness…. Ashbery's fun with "wacky analogies," protean scenes, syntactical disorder, mangled metaphors …, the pleasure he takes in being a cognitive will-o'-the-wisp, give the humor of life and the life of humor to his poems. But play in itself, we know, is frivolous. To command the imagination it must play on the brink on some fascinating abyss; call it "otherness."
So the challenge before Ashbery is to play mysteriously. He must not be willed, he must not be gimmicky. But in fact he is frequently both…. (pp. 162-64)
[At such times, his] language doesn't discover obscurely, through play; it merely disposes playfully.
Ashbery's pitfalls, we begin to see, are at one extreme a programmatically empty manner and, at the other, a flatteringly explicit interest in his manner as the matter of the poem. In one form or another, his manner thus threatens to be all to him. His only safety is to be divining something, or feeling that he is…. What is on show [when Ashbery is not divining] is the with-it attitude. Though this attitude makes light of itself, it is also all there is. It postures, as much of this poet's work does, in the credibility gap of the age, as one thing you can do in such a gap. But it is not itself full of perplexity. It hams, rather than explores, its indecision.
Often Ashbery intermingles passages of mere rhetoric with passages of rhetorical otherness. [Though we may be momentarily intrigued,] we come to expect nothing from [such] lines except the performance itself; they're all surface…. Distrust the content though we may, to read it is a little to swell with it, to bloom with it, to enjoy its celebration of the potential power of poetry, its own illustrative newness, and not least, the sense of our human pathos, hence importance, at the close. This, then, is English as "otherness," rhetoric as seriousness. (pp. 165-67)
How often Ashbery puts one into the mined zone between "reality" and "fantasy," frightening one with the possibility that they are not comfortingly separate after all—he has some of Kafka's genius for the misgiving. The rather appalling impression [in "Spring Light"] of a heavy darkness in the trees, indeed all around, "a darkness of one's own," is a superb conjuration of a spiritual undoing. That inner should be so outer, outer so inner, both so dark—the screw takes a turn into otherness. (p. 168)
[In "Pyrography"] we find his romantic sense of possibilities and a contrary sense of "time running out" pressing together rather poignantly…. [This] represents Ashbery's genial and generous if apprehensive center: the general balance of his large hopes and fears. It is a balance that, for all his cultivation of strangeness, makes him very much a poet of the human norm. (pp. 168-69)
Since Ashbery can evoke otherness in very few words …, and does so often, it's hard to single out certain pieces as clearly superior to the rest. But "Pyrography," "Fantasia on 'The Nut-Brown Maid,'" "Business Personals." "Melodic Trains" (despite its frivolous conclusion), "Wet Casements," "Daffy Duck in Hollywood," "And Ut Pictura Poesis is Her Name," and "Syringa" press to be named. If only more of each of these poems had necessity as well as an air of assurance; if only more were depth, as against surface. Perhaps the excess of facetious play-acting left over when you subtract what he needs to prepare his surprises of eloquence and depth will not, in the long run, detract much from his reputation. But meanwhile, it is often not very funny; and that it makes one keep asking if one is missing something is not a fruitful tactic. When one reads the great passages, one knows one is missing something. But it's really there, or so it seems: a hidden light or darkness, maybe one's own. (p. 169)
Calvin Bedient, "The Tactfully Folded-Over Bill," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © Poetry in Review Foundation), Vol. 6, No. 1, Fall-Winter, 1977, pp. 161-69.
What an ear! What an evasive sensibility! Wallace Stevens mingles with Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch. Pop Art marries Ezra Pound. Who in America sings more sweetly or teasingly than Ashbery? In him is magnificently merged the warm low and icy high of American tradition, P. T. Barnum and John Quincy Adams. [Rivers and Mountains] is to be strongly praised. In it, nature and human space are always full-blown concerns, even in parodies of Chinese. The book is a cornerstone in the erection of Ashbery's mirror glass skyscraper.
"Notes on Current Books: 'Rivers and Mountains'," in Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1979, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 55, No. 2 (Spring, 1979), p. 66.
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 specific, of moving toward some point which, like the end of a rainbow, always just eludes us. In an Ashbery poem, we feel this mainly because the syntax of his sentences is so "reasonable" sounding, so adeptly connected over such long intervals. It is the syntax of the best expository prose style. Language, fit into such syntax, almost has to "mean" something definite….
It is Ashbery's genius not only to be able to execute syntax with this heft, but to perceive that syntax in writing is the equivalent of "composition" in painting: it has an intrinsic beauty and authority almost wholly independent of any specific context. Thus, in Ashbery's poetry, the isolation of verse on the page is analogous to the framing of a painting; and each sentence—not each word—each sentence is analogous to a "brushstroke" … recorded in paint on a canvas.
The basis—the necessary but not sufficient condition—for the credibility of Ashbery's best poems is simply the syntax of his "prose." For it is a curious fact, one which anybody has observed who has ever prescribed "imitation" to students, that beautiful syntax has a habit of dignifying almost any text which you substitute into it. (p. 37)
Ashbery's longer-lined poems are, in my opinion, his better poems. Like those poems of Yeats, where extended periodic sentences are jammed into a narrow rhyming measure which works in syncopated counterpoint to the unfolding syntax, Ashbery's best poems are built from the kind of sentences which are more apt to be found in great prose rather than great poetry…. ["Evening in the Country" is such a poem].
The "mood" of "Evening in the Country" is expansive, pastoral, meditative, philosophical. As its title confirms, there is a rambling, rural amplitude of vision here, a grand romantic solitude which is strongly reminiscent of Words-worth's "Tintern Abbey" or parts of The Prelude. The poem presents to us an experience, a gestalt of color, scale, emotion, tempo which seems wholly familiar, wholly recognizable, with innumerable precedents both in literature and in our own lives; yet if we examine the poem at all, can we say with any confidence that it is describing a literal "evening in the country?" Couldn't "the country" figuratively suggest "the United States" or, indeed, any "landscape," real or imaginary? The figurative associations of "evening" are, of course, too numerous and too obvious to mention…. The poem alludes to the world; but its range of possible reference is unlimited. The referents all lie "out-side" the poem.
This brings us to the basic assumption, the central paradox, upon which the "abstract-expressionist" aesthetic is founded—the assumption that a work of art can present to us a gestalt which is recognizable without reference to a specific context, which can be general yet feel specific. The strategy of Ashbery's mature work relentlessly strives to achieve this degree of "abstraction," of absolution. "Evening in the Country" establishes it by line 12…. At this point, the poem's expansive gestures establish a sweeping "scale" of vision which is independent of any "fields" or "houses." The evocative phrase "my remotest properties" has an infinite range of reference. The tempo of the language and the very syntax of the sentences—the long unfurling sense of settling down which they give—constitute a precise and convincing "objective correlative" to our experience, but—that paradox again—an "objective correlative" with only one term. Inevitably Ashbery's diction is abstract; yet despite its degree of abstraction the passage is strangely "concrete." It is as if, hovering just below the "surface" of the "painting," there were a specific landscape, a single occasion, on the verge of breaking through but never quite able to. It is the implicit and imminent presence of this world, trying to come back through the poem which gives Ashbery's poetry much of its suspense. (p. 38)
The freedom, the absolution which such a strategy confers may be appreciated if we compare it with the strategy of [Wallace] Stevens in "Sea Surface Full of Clouds."… The very presence of "imagery," of "a scene" [in the Stevens poem] causes us to refer "feeling" to elements in the poem, to a picture. In an Ashbery poem, on the other hand, "the scene" upon which "feeling" is projected is no longer a set of images which can be located within the verse frame. Instead, as the title of Ashbery's best collection, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, would suggest, what corresponds to "the scene" in the Stevens poem—the designated area upon which the imagination throws its "colouring"—is the very syntax of the poem, which disarms the reader, lending an Ashbery poem the same air of reasonableness which conventional imagery lends the Stevens poem. In an Ashbery poem, the contexts to which the "colouring" can be applied are, like the images in a conventional mirror, outside the frame, and, like the images in a convex mirror, they have an unlimited range of reference: every object within a 180-degree angle of vision behind the person facing the mirror appears in the mirror. Indeed, the difference between Ashbery's aesthetic and Stevens' is not so great. Ashbery's aesthetic is simply the next logical step beyond Stevens'.
But the analogy we have been pursuing between Ashbery's epistemology and the epistemology of abstract-expressionist painting may be carried a step further: If the choice of a verse format is equivalent to the imposition of a frame upon a painted area, and if Ashbery's interlocking sentence patterns are equivalent to a kind of painterly "composition" within the frame, to what do individual sentences correspond? To "brushstrokes," to discrete painterly gestures recorded by whatever means, brush, rag, palette knife. To extend the analogy even another step: the "content" of an Ashbery sentence may then be regarded as similar to the "content" of a brushstroke in a painting….
[Brushstrokes] refer, like the images in a mirror (convex or otherwise), to anything and everything outside the frame. Indeed, the very act of "framing" is a convention fundamental to both literature and painting, a convention which directs our habits of reference, which tells us what to expect when confronting a painting, a novel, a poem. So established is this convention in painting that it is impossible to look at a framed painting without trying to find a "picture," without thinking that the painting, like a paragraph of complete sentences, must be "about" something and that everything within the frame coheres in one "image." As a result, one is continually brought up short by the surface and texture of an "abstract-expressionist" painting. The eye involuntarily looks "through" the picture plane to find a "scene," only to be yanked back to the surface…. [The picture furnishes] nothing more definite than the motions of paint, brushstrokes which, although they are clearly about the world, are unimpeachable representatives of it, because they don't have to "look like" any one thing, they look like anything: they are absolved from the meanness of narrow reference.
The "content" of Ashbery's best sentences has a similar unimpeachability. The sentences make assertions which, like the assertions of brushstrokes, have to be true, assertions which, by referring to anything and everything at once, approach the perfect truth of tautology: "But I think there is not too much to be said or to be done / And that these things eventually take care of themselves …"…. (p. 39)
[Ashbery's is] a poetry whose formal characteristics are, like those of abstract expressionist painting, not an arbitrary experiment but the result of Ashbery's anxiety over what Stafford calls, in "Ozymandias's Brother," "the right degree of assertion."… An abstract-expressionist poetry must derive from a [sense] … of the dead-endedness and epistemological limitation of "representational" propositions, of propositions that can confidently assert the speaker's stance, that risk and opinion. It is this metaphysical hedging—a kind of despair, if you will, or at least a refusal to risk making a fool of oneself by earnestly trying to mean something—which lies behind the cool, noncommittal lyricism of so much plain-style verse; but in Ashbery's poetry we see that there is a degree of epistemological despair beyond which the formal assumptions of "representational" poetry can no longer apply. (p. 40)
Jonathan Holden, "Syntax and the Poetry of John Ashbery," in The American Poetry Review (copyright © 1979 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Jonathan Holden), Vol. 8, No. 4, July-August, 1979, pp. 37-40.
[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, an organic whole, a completed entity. In all sorts of ways it reaches beyond itself. It demands a different kind of reading than the New Critic brings to it. What I would like to do here is look briefly at the poems of John Ashbery whose work is almost universally abhorred by those of New Critical persuasion; I would like to look particularly at his endings—the ends of lines, the ends of poems, and even the ends of three of his latest volumes, The Double Dream of Spring (1970), Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), and Houseboat Days (1977)—to see if we can define what different mode of reading his work might require. Ashbery's endings suggest that a new kind of prosody has overtaken us, that the formal problem of ending is perhaps no longer a problem. Ashbery reconstitutes the site of poetic closure in the reader, not the poem.
It is probably a dangerous assertion—because Ashbery is an accomplished prosodist of great range, at home with both traditional and non-traditional forms—but it seems to me that poetic effect in Ashbery's work derives almost exclusively from the various resources of ending. One of the usual complaints about much of his verse is that there is nothing to distinguish it from prose. We too easily forget that in traditional verse poetic effect is measured against a poetic norm. That is, poetic effects are those things which draw attention to themselves by their variation on a recognizable prosodic pattern. Ashbery knows that poetic effect in free verse, which he seems to prefer to more traditional forms, is measured not against prosodic pattern but against patternless prose. Poetic effect then is achieved whenever the verse rises above the conditions of prose. A good deal of the verse must therefore be proselike. The verse draws attention to itself as poetry whenever its line divisions seem more than arbitrary, whenever the line's last word seems to justify its terminal position. Ashbery's poems tend to modulate between these moments when the line endings carry the bulk of his poetic effect and when they are quietly compatible with a less intense, prose-like background. (pp. 40-1)
"Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape" is a light-hearted excursion into a realm of both formal and thematic possibility that becomes in much of Ashbery's less traditional work a more serious issue. One of the primary thematic concerns of his poetry is the way in which the art object transcends its own historical identity (that is, the various circumstances of its making) and infuses itself into the ever-changing condition, the being of its audience. Ashbery is concerned with art not as a thing in itself but as a thing that is experienced. For this reason he constantly insists in public that he cannot remember the autobiographical circumstances which surround the composition of a poem. What inspired it is beside the point…. As he writes in the 1972 volume of prose poetry, Three Poems, "art … can only exist by coming into existence."… Art must, in short, repeatedly round the corner into the world of our being. "What [is] wanted," he says elsewhere in Three Poems, "[is] an end to the 'end' theory."… What he wants is an ending which works "like / Closing the ranks so as to leave them open," as he says in a poem significantly titled "Tenth Symphony."… (p. 42)
The inexhaustible and ahistorical presence of the art object—that is, the continual experiencing of it which continually raises it into being—is the subject of Ashbery's very famous "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," which details his confrontation with and possession of the Parmigianino painting of the same name. The aesthetic experience of confrontation is the subject of both his "Fantasia"—based on "The Nut-Brown Maid"—and two poems, "Mixed Feelings" and "City Afternoon," which address the paradoxical nature of photography. The photograph, as an object, mediates between past and present, absence and presence, and—insofar as it inspires imaginative response, as it does especially in "Mixed Feelings"—fact and fiction. The Parmigianino painting shows these same paradoxical possibilities…. The painting exists as a series of "whispers out of time" …—the poem's final words, the last three meaning both "from the past" and "timeless."… What the painting means, whatever its whispers say, moves into the open…. Whatever Ashbery understands about the painting is probably not even close to what Parmigianino intended. But it is in the openness of his interpretive gestures that the painting lives: "The locking into place is 'death itself'" …, he says. The artist finally discovers that "in the end it is what is outside him / that matters" …; the work lives neither in itself nor in its intention, but in the protean response to it.
This emphasis on the openness of the art work, an openness based on the shifting and mutable response of its audience, is formally reflected in Ashbery's delight in the vagaries of enjambment, the plurality of possibility that enjambment forces us to confront. In "Self-Portrait," for instance, he ends one line with the words "This past," but begins the next with "Is now present,"… thus confounding past and present…. Enjambment forces dislocation, a new perspective. The text requires reinterpretation of itself.
I do not mean to suggest that [Ashbery always uses] … enjambment as a way to upset our expectations. But this enjambment is one way he achieves poetic effect, raises his verse out of the patternlessness of prose. It also forces us to read him cautiously. I think that any reader of Ashbery is prepared for anything to happen, any sense of what's going on in a poem to be overturned even as a poem is being read—even in its rereading. The art object which most concerns Ashbery, after all, is the poem itself…. If the poem itself … survives only in its audience, then this explains, I think, the reason so many of Ashbery's poems are addressed to an ambiguous "you"—at once Ashbery himself, a friend or lover, and the reader. As in the long poem "Fragment" which concludes The Double Dream of Spring, there is a sense that all Ashbery's poems await response…. Only in the ambiguous "you" does the song come to meaning. And the ambiguity of "you"—its allowed-for plurality—guarantees the plurality of the song's meaning as well.
What is true about the endings of individual poems seems also true about the volume as a whole. Ashbery fittingly concludes The Double Dream of Spring with a poem titled "Fragment" to ensure a sense of incompletion in this group of poems. "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" concludes another volume of the same name, a long poem which superimposes self-portraits—of Parmigianino, of Ashbery, of his readers—in a kind of endless mirror game. And the final words of "Fantasia on 'The Nut-Brown Maid,'" which ends Houseboat Days, are
I sing alway
the last word projecting into the future, but incomplete, demanding of its audience the "s" which will complete it—and which will of course suggest the other appropriate "all ways" sense.
What Ashbery's endings imply, finally, is a conception of literature and literary history (the history of art too, for that matter), as a series of abrupt discontinuities, of successive, new literary "nows" which modify, even wholly break from, the literary "past," whether that past is the last line we've read, the last poem, or "the tradition" itself. All of the formal and thematic concerns that I have here described can readily be seen expressed as experiential or affective stylistic mannerisms, and what I have been trying to suggest is that Ashbery's affective poetry, by lending itself to open-ended interpretation continuously destroys and reconstitutes itself. It canonizes one activity, and that is our never-ending engagement with it. (pp. 42-4)
Henry M. Sayre, "'A Recurring Wave / Of Arrival': Ashbery's Endings," in Poet and Critic (© Department of English, Iowa State University), Vol. 11, No. 3, 1979, pp. 39-44.
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 and noise, focus and blur…. [Consciousness] is before everything else a continuous activity of decoding, one neither intense nor mild but perpetual and more or less absorbing. Most literature, however, has chosen not to imitate this aspect of our nature but rather to fashion a world far more consistently meaningful than the one we live in. Ashbery, in spite of his reputation as an arcane and experimental writer, may be the first realist our poetry has produced.
"Litany" is in three sections. The first seems to be loosely concerned with time and that powerful but unthinkable marker of time, death…. The way we defend ourselves against the idea of mortality is to drown out with neural static those few moments when we hear the appalling message loud and clear. This first section of the poem approximates the method, our defense. Thus in one column we read the bald assertion. "the carrion still / Steams here," but in the adjacent column the same thought is hushed up in elegant diction and a mixed metaphor….
The second section examines time in its transcribed and generational guise; history…. Like most artists, Ashbery is not at home in the world; he cannot wield its abstractions with aplomb…. "History," therefore, makes the poet uncomfortable. What does it mean?
Well, it may mean the accumulation of detritus, and we encounter several long lists of junk…. Juxtaposed against the junk of history is a phenomenological inquest into the meaning of the work….
Bits of junk … are played off against the anxious counting of minutes…. Images from history … are juxtaposed against private reckonings…. In crucial passages all these themes come together….
As the meditation deepens, the text itself becomes a standin for history, and Ashbery's lines shimmer with ambiguity—does he mean the poem or life? the painting or the actual view? The wittiest and most jarring discovery of this section is that the imagination finds itself in whatever it looks at, especially (and here's the odd part) if that reflecting surface is a landscape or a still-life rather than a portrait of people: "Better / the coffee pot and sewing basket of a still-life—/ It's more human, if you want, I mean something / A human is more likely to be interested in / Than pictures of human beings…."
The final section of the poem is a bewildered, even a bit mad but ultimately exultant response to the problems of time, death and history proposed by the earlier sections. As David Shapiro has pointed out in his new critical study, John Ashbery …, all the long poems tend to end on a joyful note, though one harmonized with doubt and anguish. In this conclusion the poet rejects the equation of life and text in order to acknowledge the rich messiness of experience. Like the familiar example of the bee which is aerodynamically impossible but doesn't know so and flies anyway, the poet—though faced with death, crushed under history and immersed in the fog of daily life—evinces a will to joy and, thereby, becomes joyful.
The shorter poems that make up the rest of the book recast into different terms these grand, philosophical questions, but the real news this volume brings us is the heroic achievement of "Litany," a work that gives us, after all, a victory, though not one that has been easily secured.
Edmund White, "Two-Part Variations," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), November 25, 1979, p. 4.
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 particular, "Tapestry" …, is of the eminence of "Soonest Mended" in The Double Dream of Spring and "Wet Casements" in Houseboat Days. There are not many contemporary poems that deserve the old but crucial phrase: "inexhaustible to meditation." These do….
[Litany is a] maddening but very amiable and accomplished poem. What is maddening has not come suddenly to Ashbery, at the age of 52.
It was always there, in an only apparent discursiveness that played at being a willful randomness. But, as before, Ashbery is neither discursive nor random. He is as intensely figurative a poet as Whitman and Stevens were, and like these ancestors he wears a mask of the casual extemporizer which no reader should trust for an instant. (p. 26)
Sustained reading [of Litany] has convinced me finally that the right-hand column is much the better of what I suspect after all to be two poems, uneasily separate from one another. Not that the left-hand column lacks its glories, but it speaks for Ashbery's self whereas the right-hand meditation is the voice of what Whitman called the "real me," or the "me myself," a more inward and vulnerable aspect of the self. If my judgment is at all correct, then I would call the left-hand column a substitution for or sublimation of Ashbery's deepest desires, whereas the right-hand side is more nearly an evasion or repression of those desires, which fascinatingly keep breaking through, revealing ranges of Ashbery's sensibility and intellectual ambition that have not been overtly evident before this. (pp. 26-7)
I call the poem/poems Litany "problematic" because with each rereading, I wonder why I (or Ashbery) need the lefthand side, but then I recall Whitman's Song of Myself, surely Ashbery's ultimate model, with its moving description of Whitman's evasive side; "the Me myself."…
Litany extends the achievement of the Ashbery who begins to persuade us that he, rather than Whitman, has written these lines concerning his true self. (p. 27)
Harold Bloom, "Books and the Arts: 'As We Know'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1979 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 181, No. 26, December 29, 1979, pp. 26-8.
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 a poet steeled against misgivings, and too restless to hazard a backward glance….
The most sustained of Mr. Ashbery's meditations on "life in a Silver Age" is "Litany."… In the second column, which independently makes the better poem of the two, Mr. Ashbery calls for "a new school of criticism" to restore something of a departed luster to the moments of our lives. He wants criticism to rescue poetry for those who are "Not giants or titans, but strong, firm / Human beings with a good sense of humor," to help them "make some sense of their lives, / Bring order back into the disorderly house / Of their drab existences."
Generous as it is, the sentiment may seem a little shocking when it issues from a poet who once proposed: "Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibility that they are founded on nothing." Mr. Ashbery is still testing the foundations—but now he would prefer to know that they are there. Yet he makes his new appeal in a poem that is, if not ironic, at least frankly duplicitous in structure. "Litany" itself exemplifies the unsettling ingenuity of poetry in a Silver Age.
Nevertheless, Mr. Ashbery remains a master of invention, and in several short poems he sails against every doubt, and makes us feel that all true invention is ageless. (p. 6)
Mr. Ashbery's vocabulary is a very strange thing. It allows him to adopt in rapid succession the characteristic verbal postures of such contemporary types as the Professor of Sociology, the Pop Radio Disc Jockey, and the Teller of Bad Jokes, all of them now and then stealing a march on the preferred literary mode of Wallace Stevens, or W. H. Auden, or Ronald Firbank, which Mr. Ashbery also commands at will…. Mr. Ashbery's extravagance dares and double-dares him, and he will not back down. So he begins a poem with the Ingres portrait of Angelica, and ends it with "brushing the teeth." And yet, he is in earnest….
[Mr. Ashbery] supposes—because it has been true for him—that words are a power. They are not "certain good." But what he knows of good and evil, and of life and death, they have brought into being, and they alone can annihilate. His aim in using words is not compassion, or pity, or charm—all qualities that make a poet an amiable fellow—but sublimity. Words are the "total environment," he might say, in one of his jargon-laden disguises; in his more somber intervals he calls them, simply "the trap."…
"The Sun," "Tapestry" and "Train Rising Out of the Sea" are permanent additions to the vitality of modern poetry, and those who read "As We Know," "In a Boat," "Haunted Landscape," "Late Echo," "Flowering Death" and "Five Pedantic Pieces" will sense a vastly original and solitary spirit working out its way, even in these imperfect vehicles. From the boredom and junk of a late civilization, Mr. Ashbery extorts some of the words that form its stillvivid testament. The boredom and junk are often left untransfigured—more often here than in any of his books since "The Tennis Court Oath." But he pays this price for his new inventions and his new doubts. He is contributing largely to the serious imagining of our time, and he takes his pratfalls as they come, knowing that they are inseparable from an ambition so single-minded as to make him stand almost alone. (p. 20)
David Bromwich, "Golden Age, Silver Poet," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 6, 1980, pp. 6, 20.
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 names, Ashbery doesn't give the speakers any names or differentiating marks. The two speakers could be one, in different moods or phases, but I choose not to think so.
A detour, first, otherwise I have no hope of making sense of As We Know…. [Let us imagine a poetic character walking alone by the sea], facing out and up to reality in the guise of the sea. Certain possibilities disclose themselves: the poet may, against great odds, find the reality of the sea so satisfying that he is content to apprehend it: or he may find it totally incomprehensible, and turn inland; or he may impose upon it his own vision, mastering it, or feeling that he masters it, answering one fact with a correspondingly imperious fiction…. From Emerson's "Sea-Shore" to Stevens's "The Idea of Order at Key West" and Ammons's "Corsons Inlet," it has been a question of reality and the poetic imagination; the sea and the imagination, which I construe as the mind in the aspect of the freedom it claims.
John Ashbery's poems belong to this Romantic or post-Romantic tradition, even though his walks are not as marine as Ammons's. His beaches are more often city streets. No matter: it is the same question of reality and imagination. But the first sign of a poem by Ashbery is the misgiving with which conclusions are broached or approached. Stevens wanted to come to conclusions, and to let them differ from one another, according to his mood…. But Ashbery's poems post guards against conclusions…. [Yet they] are not opaque or even obscure. They are serpentine, they allow us to follow them but not to know where precisely we are going, or why…. He doesn't mind producing [conclusions], so long as the reader knows that they do not make the truth visible. (p. 36)
In Ashbery's poems, what we feel is [Stevens's] hum of thoughts evaded in the mind, great generalities pressing to be heard and, in the event, being eluded.
Hence his procedure: "chronic reverie." Not day-dreaming, but mind concentrated upon everything that defeats the logic of premise and conclusion. Ashbery is always willing to see "the evidence of the visual" replaced by "the great shadow of trees falling over life," because shadows have for him the same status as substances, variations the same status as themes. He likes to take his theme to Land's End, and if at that point it is barely visible: no matter. He does not "line phrases with the costly stuff of explanation."
His long poems are like letters to an intimate friend or lover, permitting the usual mixture of news and inconsequence, relying upon the friend's good will, knowing that, within reason and cadence, nearly anything goes…. [His] relation to things and messages offering themselves as congruent is that of a voluntary exile; he chooses to live in another country. The haven of citizenship is premature. Owing so much to Stevens, Ashbery settles his debts without aspiring to anything as grand as a supreme fiction: that, too, must be evaded.
Ashbery's poems turn and twist upon the question of self and the conditions it has to face. Mostly, they trace an elaborate and endlessly inventive circuit of consciousness as it tries to establish itself, working toward its proper tone. Sometimes, for pure relief, he takes pleasure in the otherness of things, "this otherness, this not-being-us" as he calls it in "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," but more generally he approaches the forms of his experience as temptations, and regards their otherness as temptation in its most refined form. Among the available attitudes, he leans toward those that are suspicious of themselves and alive to the tempting positions they eventually disown. So his nouns often denote possible commitments he is not quite prepared to make. The truth is something else, it rarely coincides with the signs that offer to indicate it: it is neither this nor that, though it includes something of both. (pp. 36-7)
Most poets who take on the sundry of experience have an interest in modifying the privilege of one part of an experience over another: they don't want to endow with special aura any particular images or symbols. But they make an exception in favor of their own voices. With this privilege, you can do nearly anything: the reader is willing to go along with a dominant voice wherever it leads him. Ashbery is remarkable in treating his own voice with the same suspicion he directs upon other things. Taking every precaution against sounding like Stevens, he goes further and avoids sounding like himself. The fact that he does not succeed makes it wonderful that he should even try….
[Generally] Ashbery apparently believes that his aesthetic of evasion requires him to include his own voice among the propositions, ideas, thoughts, and other congruent messages he must circumvent. In the short poems of As We Know the voice we hear is what Ashbery could not entirely withhold. In this he is the most un-Yeatsian of poets.
Yet he is a stylist, one of the best. But the style he seeks and, with increasing flair since Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror and Houseboat Days, finds is a flexible style in which he can negotiate everything on his own terms: no privileges are offered…. [It] is a style consistent with the equable hospitality ascribed to the mind in Houseboat Days:
The mind Is so hospitable, taking in everything Like boarders.
What Ashbery asks of his style is that it keep him in the space of his themes and, if necessary, let him escape their importunity; going back into style again. In Three Poems (1972) he describes, not at all ruefully, a situation in which "the life has gone out of our acts and into the attitudes."… In Ashbery's poems the recession from acts to attitudes is seen as having its uses because it provides "an open field of narrative possibilities" instead of a single story he is no longer disposed to endow with authority. So his long poems do not tell stories as privileged interpretations of what happened; they make spaces to move around in…. (p. 37)
Style, then, is a way of keeping going … but what does it look like on the page, or sound like in those held breaths and withheld voices? On the page it looks trim enough, in the voice or voices it sounds like talk; not talk that draws attention to the speaker, but talk as such, to be attended to mainly for its continuity. Ashbery's long poems keep the talk going until it threatens to denote a resting place, a conviction, a thought as distinct from the mind thinking, and then they circumvent the impulse, diverting it to convey the diffidence their poet feels about such grandeurs…. Talk, in Ashbery's poetry, denotes not a reference but a need to speak: such stability as he wants is embodied in the circuit of talk and does not luxuriate in the brilliance of any particular aperçu. As in "Litany"
The talk leads nowhere but is Inside its space.
A long poem is simply a big space, congenially occupied. But of course it fends off other spaces over which the poet has otherwise no control. Within the space of the poem, Ashbery can set his own ostensibly casual decorum in which monsters, like hijackers, are talked down, diverted, or appeased. Ductility is Ashbery's word for this decorum in "Litany," though he has in mind the relation between writing and imagination; it corresponds to the ingenuity of a talker who keeps going lest some terrible fact, temporarily sequestered, invade his space.
As We Know is a difficult book, but not obscure as, say, The Tennis Court Oath was obscure…. Neither of the monologues in "Litany" is difficult, only the relation between them. And in the relatively short poems the reader's mind is often puzzled but rarely brought to a standstill: lucidities come quickly and regularly enough to keep him in a buoyant state, his spirits well kept up. But it would be absurd to maintain that reading As We Know is plain sailing, or that the joy of its intermittent gorgeousnesses ("And imagine radiant blue flamingoes against the sacred sky") is enough to keep you going for the rest of a page.
The difficulties are not in local meaning, but in knowing or even sensing how one such meaning bears upon the next…. [In such poems as "Otherwise" and "There's No Difference"] the lines predicate a situation, but no particular situation is indicated, so we are forced into guesswork until we realize that a context, precisely established, would force the poem to be at home in it; and this is yet another fixed reference that Ashbery evades.
Still, the poems belong to an apparently human situation which we divine mostly by following the maneuverings of "I" and "You." These terms are not as reliable as their grammar, we must be prepared to see them fade out of sight and return as ghosts or shadows, but they give us points of reference, a body of feelings we care about, if not quite a definition. Fixity would be, on the reader's part, a gaucherie equivalent to insistence. Ashbery's time is "a present that is elsewhere," so there is no point in forcing his poems into a present that we insist upon fixing here….
Often in As We Know we come upon poems in which the weather is so changeable that we can barely recognize the season; and yet the style is so convincing that our assent runs ahead of the demand the poem makes for it. As in "Many Wagons Ago."… (p. 38)
I take [this] poem to be about the difficulty of spelling, of reading the signs that pass between people, even when we are given bright letters to read, bright lights to negotiate. The equation, the sense we make of the evidence, is false because premature. You don't see this until you start stitching the pieces together. What I find touching in the poem is the evidence of easy conclusions entertained only to be set aside …; as, in the last stanza, two unusually opulent flourishes are sobered by the steadying force of "It resists." This force removes any suspicion we may have entertained that Ashbery is the Prufrock of American poetry ("It is impossible to say just what I mean!") or that he takes his feelings so seriously that he doesn't risk expressing them. Not so: his feelings do not sink to rest upon commonplaces of certitude and conviction, but that is their distinction. (p. 39)
Denis Donoghue, "Sign Language," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1980 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVI, Nos. 21 & 22, January 24, 1980, pp. 36-9.