For thirty years, John Ashbery has been hailed as a poet of substance whose each new book has been heralded with enthusiasm and awards. Selected Poems (the author is the selector) gathers representative poems from books ranging from Some Trees (1956), a Yale Series of Younger Poets choice, through the acclaimed The Tennis Court Oath (1962) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) to his last previous volume, A Wave (1984).
Many readers who delve bravely into the intricacies of modern poetry consider Ashbery among the most difficult of post-World War II poets, and anyone plumbing this volume will quickly sense how intimidating Ashbery can be. Although he does not associate himself with the school of poets that despises—or affects to despise—communication, he has been accused, even by admirers, of refusing to write English. His grammar is unconventional in a way that challenges the perspicacity of linguistically oriented critics.
Not surprisingly, his work has become the subject of book-length studies, including one by David Shapiro with the promising title John Ashbery: An Introduction to His Poetry (1979), but students are likely to find much of Shapiro’s criticism as intimidating as the poetry. Shapiro often says or implies that one should not expect an answer to a question such as what does it mean? In the reader who demands “sense,” Ashbery is likely to provoke disappointment, even exasperation. Nor can he be taken in at a gallop: “Modern poetry is a series of insults to the speeding reader,” Shapiro observes wryly. This critic finds Ashbery’s poetry to be autonomous and antireferential. One is as likely to encounter deliberate incoherence as coherence. Shapiro proceeds to analyze the poetry with great subtlety and with a determination to see the poetry in its own terms, for he too is a poet, but his very resolve to do justice to Ashbery can be bewildering. The reader must be prepared for such utterances as this concluding sentence in the chapter on Ashbery’s early work: “Never again is limpidity employed so continuously concerning the themes of discontinuity and opacity.”
Perhaps the best introduction to Ashbery’s poetry, after all, is this new selection of 138 poems (some of them extracts from long poems and some of them prose meditations) from ten earlier books. Though each of Ashbery’s books is brilliant in itself, Selected Poems is more than the sum of its parts, as it in fact constitutes the record of an inquiring mind’s lifelong quest for the unknowable, Wallace Stevens’ “poem of the act of the mind,” in a world even less intelligible than that of a half century ago. One need not be a philosopher to appreciate the epistemological problems of modern philosophy or the importance that a poet such as Ashbery attaches to the pursuit of truth when truth itself seems fragmented, elusive, perhaps even illusory.
Samuel Beckett has said that “words are all we have,” and, like Beckett’s, Ashbery’s language is brilliant and rich enough to carry the reader over the difficulties of the meaning. Ashbery is overwhelmed by the desire to know and to share his self-discovery, so both the desire and the discovery (or the void created where the desire preponderates) are the essence of a grammar that exists for itself.
An early poem, “The Grapevine,” embodies the question of knowing. The basis of knowledge. “Of who we and all they are/ You all now know,” is small compared to the question:
But you knowAfter they began to find us out we grewBefore they died thinking us the causesOf their acts.
Then there is the crucial discovery. “But things get darker as we move/ To ask them:” So what began as a recognition of truth ends in a complex question: “Whom must we get to know/ To die, so you live and we know?”
A discovery does not put an end to the question, as there is always the further question and the further discovery. The early volume Some Trees already illustrates Ashbery’s attempt to define reality—and also the early influences, one of the strongest being Wallace Stevens. Thus in “Le Livre est sur la table”:
(The entire section is 1821 words.)