“More Pleasant Adventures,” a poem from A Wave (1984), is one of those small performances by Ashbery that tempt critics into presuming that it stands for something other than itself, sometimes with preposterous consequences. On the surface it seems simple enough. The first two lines, for example, with the idea of the wedding cake looming behind them, are very smart, very succinctly sophisticated in their summing-up of the way in which the romance settles down to living day by day. The following metaphors, tracing the gradual lack of mutual interest, round out the first verse with a poetic version of how couples stop communicating.
The second verse starts with a double example of how Ashbery makes use of nonpoetic language. “Heck” has a kind of down-home simplicity that is not expected in poetry. It is followed by an equally deflated idea, a line from the popular song from the 1940’s, “Sentimental Journey.” Serious poets are “supposed” to quote from opera, but Ashbery chooses the songs of the streets. There is a rightness about this; anyone who rationalizes a failed relationship with the word “heck” is hardly likely to possess a repertoire that transcends Tin Pan Alley. It surely places the failure as less than tragic, however, and the rest of the poem is a listing of minor failures, ending in a suggestion that whatever else the years have done, they have resulted in the accumulation of some property for the unhappy pair to fight over.
Ashbery is often distinguished from poets such as Robert Lowell and John Berryman because he is thought not to tell stories of human anguish and failure. Poems such as “More Pleasant Adventures,” however, suggest the contrary. It may be possible to take this poem to a higher level of metaphorical gesture and claim that it makes a more portentous statement about human nature, but on its most obvious level it is a very wry, astringently cool, somewhat antiromantic look at the failure of love, written from the point of view of one of the participants thereto. There is, however, a common theme in Ashbery’s work that suggests that life tends to be less and less romantic as it passes by.