John Ashbery is not a new voice in the poetry world: This is his tenth volume of poems. He is no stranger to honors: Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) won for him the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. A Wave can only enhance what is already an outstanding reputation. It has already won for him the Bollingen Prize for Poetry.
Most of the forty-four poems printed here, including the title poem, have appeared previously in various journals and anthologies. It is entirely possible, and perhaps useful, to evaluate this splendid collection without specific references to the school with which Ashbery is associated, the New York Poets, or to the influences usually remarked: the French Symbolists, the Surrealists, the Dadaists, the American abstract expressionist painters.
Ashbery’s work of recent years (and the poems here are certainly an example) has become more accessible, but it seems likely that his complexity was overstated in the first place. His technique—syntactical balance, minimal imagery, alliteration, fairly heavy use of the iambic line, complex but scannable sentences varied with short sentences or phrases, for example—is less disjointed and abstruse than that of many of the early moderns. In a few poems, the pronoun with no antecedent is finally unreadable, and in other poems, “They Like,” for example, there are no discernible stanzaic connections, no transitions. In other poems, however, such as “When the Sun Went Down,” Ashbery is so painstakingly clear that he verges on triteness.
The opening of “Proust’s Questionnaire” is somewhat atypical in technique for this collection; there are more short, staccato lines, more breath stops, as in:
I am beginning to wonderWhether this alternative toSitting back and doing something quietIs the clever initiative it seemed.
In some of the more difficult poems, “A Fly,” for example, one does get the feeling that Ashbery intends for the reader to read the poet’s own mind, to know, when he says in the opening, “And still I automatically look to that place on the wall,” exactly what place means and why he looks at it. It seems more likely, though, that he intends for the poem to create its own language, to explicate itself, for later in the poem he says: “The thing is that this is places in the world,/ Freedom from rent,/ Sundries, food, a dictionary to keep you company.”
Like an Ernest Hemingway hero, Ashbery’s speaker either finds his “patch of light” or at least knows what he is looking for, so here the speaker is perhaps defining the place he mentioned in the poem’s opening line as the little joys to be salvaged, to be automatically looked for.
There are other examples of straining the sweet from the bittersweet of experience; in fact, this is a major theme of the collection. Other themes covered in the shorter poems and then elaborated on in the title poem are the nature of time, of love, of language and Ashbery’s own work, himself, what the critics have made of his work. Nearly every poem that appears in the collection expresses a kind of joy in ambivalence, a thirst for the “variegatedness” of life.
Of the shorter poems, “Try Me! I’m Different!” may make the clearest statement about what Ashbery tries to do in his work—one comes to the point in reading this book where it seems ridiculous to call the speaker anything other than Ashbery. Here are the last five lines of the concluding seven-line stanza:
No one criticizes us for lacking depth,But the scandal shimmers, around and elsewhere.If we could finally pry open the gate to the pastures of the times,No sickness would be evident. And the colors we adducedWould supply us, parables ourselves, told in our own words.
When Ashbery is good, he is very, very good—as in “A Wave” and many other poems in this collection—and when he is bad, he is merely silly. The prose poems, though not silly, do not match the power of “A Wave,” and...
(The entire section is 1,919 words.)