The Poem

The opening of John Ashbery’s “Rivers and Mountains” (“On the secret map the assassins/ Cloistered,”) very well might cause the apprehensive reader to declare, “The map is not the territory.” Indeed, that is part of the point, and the reader attempting to comprehend “Rivers and Mountains” from the preconception that it will be either a coherent whole or a representation equivalent solely to the sum of its parts will find the work daunting, if not ultimately frustrating.

“Rivers and Mountains,” without self-promotion or celebration, presents a subtle, nuanced perspective on the human consequences of war, both victory and defeat. As the opening image develops, the reader is reminded that this is a poem. Even as the assassins cloister in “the city/ Of humiliation and defeat,” Ashbery defines the material used to create the work: “wan ending/ Of the trail among dry, papery leaves” almost lacks subtlety, the dual meaning of “leaves” having been emphasized by the early “Gray-brown quills.”

These lines appear initially not to be so much making something as searching for profundity. While a lesser poet might have presented a less ostentatious phrasing, expecting to be praised for subtlety, Ashbery rises to his self-wrought challenge, merging poem and subject into a territory that maps poem-writing to map-reading: “like thoughts/ In the melodious but vast mass of today’s/ Writing fields and swamps.”

The first verse is notable for its lack of human activity: Even the “rioters”—ostensibly but not definitively human—have been “quelled.” Ashbery develops the aura of devastation more from musical imagery than direct description of the landscape. The phrases “Deaf consolation of minor tunes” and “Singing on marble factory walls” evoke sadness or despair even more clearly than “fields and swamps” as “little bunches of weeds.” Ashbery uses musical referents to transform the territory into a representation of the map, even as the references to writing tools cause the description of the landscape and the...

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Forms and Devices

In Other Traditions (2000), Ashbery notes that three lines by composer Franz Schubert offer a “magnificent” definition of poetry: “But the poem is just this/ Speaking of what cannot be said/ To the person I want to say it.”

Much of Ashbery’s early work—from his exquisitely provocative first volume in 1956, Some Trees (W. H. Auden’s 1956 selection for the Yale Series of Younger Poets), through the pointillist pieces in The Tennis Court Oath (1962) and Rivers and Mountains—is more deliberately evocative than provocative. This is not to say that Ashbery does not want readers to contemplate or consider his work so much as react to it. Yet, like a painting by Larry Rivers or Jackson Pollack, contemplation is subsumed by the visceral nature of one’s reaction.

Ashbery himself has expressed some reluctance to embrace his early works. This, however, should be viewed in the context of poets such as Auden, who rewrote his early works to fit his later personal and political conceptions. In the context of such remarks as Auden’s that his own “The Orators” “must have been written by a madman,” Ashbery’s statement that “Europe” from The Tennis Court Oath “helped me along but I don’t value it as much as [later poems]” is positively enthusiastic.

“Rivers and Mountains” follows the free-verse form of poetry popularized by modernist poets, most notably T. S. Eliot. However, Ashbery follows in Auden’s tradition of using modernist form while maintaining a distinctly nonmodernist (if not precisely postmodernist) sensibility. Like Auden, Ashbery is more likely to write from the personal and less likely to declare his writing deep or profound. Neither of these in themselves keeps the work from being either universal or profound, though some critics seem to believe that profundity is limited to those who proclaim their work and themselves profound.


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