John Ashbery: snatching joy from the poetry of defeat
Terence Killeen assesses the poet who died this month, aged 90. There were many sides to him but his poetry changed very little despite his longevity and fluency
John Ashbery at his home in Hudson, New York in 2007. Photograph: Nathaniel Brooks / The New York Times
Now that he has died at the age of 90, it will be strange not to see another volume of the American poet John Ashbery’s work arrive every two or three years or so in future. This has been the invariable custom for some 40 years now – and even before that volumes were pretty regular arrivals from this very prolific poet since as long ago as 1956.
In an interview some time back, he did say that in earlier years he believed he had to husband his talent, to dole its products out carefully in case it ran out, but latterly he had thrown caution to the winds, as it were, and had allowed the poems to come to him as they would, without let or hindrance – and come they did, in great number. (Since his most recent book, Commotion of the Birds, appeared only last year, it is unlikely there is much posthumous production to look forward to.)
The death of a writer, especially of a long-lived one like Ashbery, is normally a time to look back over a whole career, to chart its development, to mark important turning points or swerves into a different style or a different register. Yeats is the classic example, a poet whose work took radically different directions, both in terms of content and style, at various historical or personal junctures of his long life.
This is, primarily, a poetry of defeat. A great deal of fun is had but beneath this there is the sense that poetry now hasn’t much else to do with itself
In the case of Ashbery, this is a peculiarly difficult, and perhaps pointless, exercise because in fact his poetry changed very little at any time despite his longevity and fluency. The mode he began with – impersonal, oblique, hermetic, highly self-involved despite the impersonality, impervious to outside historical or even, at least overtly, personal events or, by and large, influences – was the mode he remained with, to all intents and purposes. Thus, the very first poem, Two Scenes, in his very first volume, of 1956, could have appeared in his very last volume, of 2016, all of 60 years later, without seeming in the least out of place.
The same is true of the (non)-progression of the poems within each volume: in two of them, the poems are arranged in alphabetical order, implying that they can be read in any order one chooses, and this probably applies to the other collections as well. (In another interview, he did say that he believed one should stick to one’s “own brand” as a writer.)
There was a growing confidence – some would say a growing indulgence – in his use of this mode as time went on, it became more expansive (in the case of his 216-page poem Flow Chart, colossal) but it did not fundamentally depart from the form in which it began. It is true that his second collection, The Tennis Court Oath, was more experimental and avant-garde than anything he produced before or subsequently, but even that volume contained many quite characteristic Ashbery poems, and the others, despite their more experimental nature, did not, I think, fundamentally depart from the standard Ashbery paradigm.
Therefore, a chronological approach to this extraordinary body of work will not yield any useful results – in fact, his oeuvre almost insists on being discussed only on the terms in which it itself exists: criticism tends to become, perhaps in sheer despair of finding any other approach, mere replication, or, at best, parody. (Ashbery has also commented that his aim was to produce a poetic statement that could not alone not be expressed in any better way, but that could not be expressed in any other way whatever.)
In that spirit, it would be true to say that Ashbery is in many ways his own best critic: in a poem called Grand Galop he writes:
“The words had a sort of bloom on them
But were weightless, carrying past what was being said.”
That describes pretty accurately the effect of an Ashbery poem: the weightless words float past the reader, perhaps attractive in themselves, but having no obvious link either with any kind of external reference which might give them a bearing or a centre, or indeed with each other. There seems no particular reason why they should go on, or stop. By and large, they are quite conventionally grammatical, and syntactical: one can identify a subject, a main verb, an object etc. But what it all adds up to is another matter.
Despite this determined resistance to meaning, however, certain broad outlines of a poetic can be discerned – not a credo, or a manifesto, but a general poetic tendency. This is, primarily, a poetry of defeat. A great deal of fun is had, there is much linguistic play, many touches of wit and humour, much entertainment derived from colloquialisms, from comic books, from old movies, from pulp fiction etc, but beneath this there is the sense that all these are just ways of passing the time, that poetry now hasn’t much else to do with itself. This is made pretty explicit at the start of one of his best-known poems, Soonest Mended:
“Barely tolerated, living on the margin
In our technological society, we [that is, poets] were always having to be
On the brink of destruction, …”
The poem’s conclusion spells out all that, in the poet’s view, can now be expected of and for poetry:
“… learning to accept
The charity of the hard moments as they are doled out,
For this is action, this not being sure, this careless
Preparing, sowing the seeds crooked in the furrow,
Making ready to forget, and always coming back
To the mooring of starting out, that day so long ago.”
So all that poets and poetry can expect is the benediction of occasional gleams and glimpses of the sublime, perhaps moments of Wordsworthian recollection also, rare instants of insight and grace in the midst of a featureless, empty landscape where nothing of promise or of better prospect ever discloses itself. Similarly, at the end of a remarkable poem called “Daffy Duck in Hollywood”, Ashbery writes:
“We [again, poets]…
…have our earnest where it chances on us,
Disingenuous, intrigued, inviting more,
Always invoking the echo, a summer’s day.”
Finally, the end of his most famous poem, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, states:
“…each part of the whole falls off
And cannot know it knew, except
Here and there, in cold pockets
Of remembrance, whispers out of time.”
All three endings are saying essentially the same things, in different terms.
In this situation of generalised loss, since we have to write something anyway for some reason, poetry can play around with all kinds of linguistic possibilities, untethered, free of any need or possibility of ultimate transcendence, of ultimate responsibility to a goal or a fulfilment or completion that is by definition impossible. This is the positive side of the “defeat” I mentioned above. At the start of another poem, Cups With Broken Handles, Ashbery, who, as stated earlier, is his own best critic, writes (he is talking, as always, about himself):
“So much variation
In what is basically a one-horse town:
Part of me frivolous, part intentionally crude,
And part unintentionally thoughtless.”
Later in the same poem he writes:
“…you do not pass
From point A to point B but merely speculate
On how it would be, and in that instant
Do appear to be traveling, though we all
Stay home, don’t we. Our strength lies
In the potential for motion, not in accomplishments…”
Poetry then is stasis, with the appearance of much motion, of continual activity, an endless circling around a non-existent core, a never giving up on frenetic inventiveness, an unflagging if immobile creativity which does contain, perhaps, its own peculiar heroism.
And there is no need to be gloomy about this absence of development, this inability to break out of an enclosed circle into anything more transcendent, more visionary: Ashbery is anything but gloomy. Even a title such as Daffy Duck in Hollywood suggests the sheer entertainment that some of his poems, perhaps best taken in small doses, can give.
Being absolved from the necessity to mean anything, since there is nothing to mean, does bring about its own liberation: Ashbery plays with meaning, never quite abandoning it, but always holding it teasingly in reserve, and, having sometimes vouchsafed to grant it, then perversely undoing it.
His poetic sentences will wind through subordinate clauses, piling up qualifications, asides, parentheses, reversals, with many a “since” and a “but” giving the impression that an argument is being advanced; but the frustrated, or maybe tickled, reader often finds that the argument amounts to nothing, that whatever “point” was being made has entirely evaporated along the way.
This very extensive poetic oeuvre does occupy an important, critically acknowledged place in the history of modern poetry
This process of the undoing of meaning is made quite clear at the end of And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name, a poem which is explicitly about what is involved in the making of a poem:
“The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind
Colliding with the lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its desire to communicate
Something between breaths, if only for the sake
Of others and their desire to understand you and desert you
For other centers of communication, so that understanding
May begin, and in doing so be undone.”
(These lines may well be said to come as close to a poetic credo as Ashbery ever does.)
This very extensive poetic oeuvre does occupy an important, critically acknowledged place in the history of modern poetry. Ashbery’s poetic of defeat can be seen as part of the reaction to the lofty ambitions and towering, monumental achievements of high Modernism, which embraced and proclaimed a new world and a new aesthetic.
His sense that such ambitions are excessive and such achievements now unrealisable – that, far from being the unacknowledged legislators of mankind, poets are now “barely tolerated” – and his refusal to mourn this situation, to make of it, instead, an occasion for a new poetic inventiveness, play and creativity, align him firmly in the cultural phase or epoch known as postmodernity – a controversial and somewhat vague term which nonetheless does help to define a certain attitude to the high seriousness of the previous cultural era.
The very fact that the term means something only in relation to a previously existing term – “Modernism” itself had no precursor either as a term or as a movement – does seem quite apt to a body of work which never seeks to become exemplary, to stake out any particular place or position of its own.
One contrast that helps to clarify Ashbery’s postmodernity is with a poet to whom he is often compared, Wallace Stevens. Stevens too, particularly the early Stevens, is playful, exuberant, relishing the power of words as he deploys them. But there is an underlying seriousness to Stevens’s work: the valorisation of the imagination as a good in itself, the lofty upholding of the “Supreme Fiction” as a way of redeeming poetry and the imaginative powers in a world without other sources of belief or redemption. All of this is very foreign to Ashbery, who would never be caught extolling his own and the imagination’s powers in such a transparent, exposed fashion.
Another important critical reference for Ashbery’s poetry is the work of his near coeval, the still living critic Harold Bloom. Bloom has been the most powerful advocate of Ashbery’s work, greatly boosting his profile especially among academics, who are notoriously slow to address anything or anybody new.
Bloom’s advocacy has not always been to Ashbery’s benefit: a deeply serious person himself, he has tended to exaggerate Ashbery’s own seriousness, turning him into something of a tragic hero, beset by the anxiety of influence and other evils of belatedness, a role for which Ashbery is by nature quite unfitted: “that is not it, at all”.
Bloom tries to enlist Ashbery into his crusade against Modernism and Postmodernism in the name of a revived Romanticism, but Ashbery is really not at all a good fit with that or many other theses. He is an heir of the Modernists in more ways than Bloom would like to acknowledge.
There must also be a suspicion that Bloom’s criticism actually influenced Ashbery in his own work, hardly a pure source of poetic inspiration. The poem, As You Came From the Holy Land, of the early 1970s, gives a strong impression that here we have Ashbery reading Bloom reading Ashbery, a distinctly dubious procedure. It contains the line “the history of someone who came too late”, which might as well have been written by Bloom, and it ends with the fine, Bloomian conceit of “the idea of what time it is/ when that time is already past”. (Another poem refers to the time of a stopped clock: right twice a day.)
However, Ashbery is too hip to allow himself to be trapped for too long by any critical school: a slightly later poem, The Other Tradition, describes a gathering where “some wore sentiments/Emblazoned on T-shirts, proclaiming the lateness/ Of the hour”, which sounds like a gentle rebuke to the more apocalyptic tendencies of Bloom and his allies (Ashbery is not at all an apocalyptic poet).
The peculiar nature of Ashbery’s poetry leads inevitably to some peculiar effects. One of these is a strange flatness that permeates it. Ashbery is the least memorable of poets (Denis Donoghue has particularly remarked on this phenomenon). TS Eliot can write in Four Quartets: “My words echo/Thus, in your mind” because they do. Ashbery’s words never do this. And when the poet read his work aloud, the same phenomenon was observable: the delivery was understated, unemphatic, with no particular stress laid on any particular part. It was fluent, deft, controlled but very withdrawn and somewhat bland (in fact, blandness is one way of describing the overall effect).
The Ashbery machine rolls on evenly, undisturbed by outside events, by any shocks, any crises, any disruptions: not that these are entirely absent, but they are always absorbed into the Ashberyian phenomenological universe, made part of the wider, horizonless landscape. For instance, Ashbery is very much a New York poet, a late product of the New York School of Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch. But even 9/11 caused not the faintest ripple on the surface of this totally impervious poetry. The effect is a very curious one, probably unique in contemporary poetry at least. One aspect of this flatness is that proper names, external references even to other literary works or events or people, are very rare. They surface like occasional islets in a sea of self-absorbed poetic diction beneath whose tides they swiftly disappear again.
Another striking feature of this poetry is its attraction to the long poem. A great deal of Ashbery’s aesthetic would seem to suggest a fragile, delicate talent that could be expressed only in short forms, exquisitely ephemeral and transitory by its nature. This is not at all the case: he is quite given to long works (as he put it himself, he is “notorious” for them).
In fact, longer poems are among his most successful works: the relatively early poem, The Skaters, is a brilliant sustained meditation on change and growth, while Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (by general, and correct, consent his greatest poem, though he did not like to think so) is a rapt, amazingly intense engagement with the portrait of that name by Parmigianino which hangs in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna.
The poem embodies most clearly and most effectively Ashbery’s great “theme”, which is reflexivity, particularly self-reflexivity: by talking directly to the portrait, actually to Parmigianino himself (for once, the “you” of this poem is someone other than Ashbery himself, in whose poems “you” is almost always self-referential) the poet evokes a pathos and finally a grandeur out of the intricacies, dilemmas and contradiction of self-absorption in a work that is certainly one of the outstanding achievements of modern American poetry.
Another peculiar aspect of Ashbery’s peculiar genius is his mastery of that rare and interesting genre, the prose poem. These occur throughout his career: one whole volume, called, ironically, Three Poems, actually consists of three very long prose pieces. The order, the relative clarity required of prose sets up a fruitful tension with the more anarchic side of Ashbery’s style: the tendency of prose to “mean something” gives a particular resonance to his continuing drive to undo meaning, while still retaining it as a vestigial presence.
The prose poems, when they come, provide a different experience for the reader, a welcome variation from the somewhat numbing experience of one arbitrary-seeming, challenging poem succeeding another. (I think it was the poet James Fenton who said that he thought he would die of boredom as he ploughed through another Ashbery volume, and, while not agreeing, one can see what he means. As mentioned above, he is best taken in small doses.) With the prose poem, the register alters, and such alteration is all for the best: “So much variation/In what is basically a one-horse town”.
Ashbery is a gay poet, but this factor is only subliminally, vestigially present – which does not mean it is unimportant
The sheer impersonality of Ashbery’s work means that even when, as very occasionally happens, he is in fact being personal, the reader has no way of knowing. Thus, early in his enormous poem Flow Chart, he refers to “the death of my old mother”. A reader, who is accustomed to the “I” of an Ashbery poem referring to all kinds of invented personae and simulacra, will almost certainly assume that this is another such occasion. But in fact, the death of Ashbery’s “old mother” was indeed the initial occasion for the poem. Similarly, the long poem, A Wave, begins: “To pass through pain and not know it,/ A car door slamming in the night”. This may once more seem somewhat abstract and arbitrary but the poem comes in the wake of the break-up of a relationship, and the “car door slamming in the night” most likely does refer to an actual event related to this break-up.
Again, Ashbery is a gay poet, but this factor is only subliminally, vestigially present – which does not mean it is unimportant, or that it does not occasionally come to the surface (“ ‘Once I let a guy blow me…’ “) He consciously set himself up in opposition to the confessional poetry of Lowell and Berryman, so his self-revelations tend to be very oblique, a kind of fascinating subtext to work whose surface is intentionally smooth, burnished, in every sense impenetrable.
It might be worth mentioning, as an aside, that the mastery of language with which this poet has been credited in many obituary tributes is a very qualified one at best. He is quite capable of misusing words: in the poem And Socializing he refers to “cohorts” when he means companions (a very common error – this is the sub-editor in me coming out) and in the long poem And the Stars Were Shining he refers to something being “remonstrably a cause” when he clearly means “demonstrably” (there is no such word as “remonstrably”). One might put that down to a typo were it not that there are so many other examples of what can only be called malapropisms throughout the work. He is also capable of clumsy poetic diction: the poem Qualm includes the lines:
“This protected summer of high, white clouds, a new golf star
Flashes like confetti across the intoxicating early part
where even the merest poetic tyro would know better than to use “summer” twice in such close proximity. In another poem in the same collection, Another Chain Letter, the words “stop” and “stopped” are brought into far too close conjunction. There is a rough-hewn, down home Americana quality to his work to which these examples testify. He is a very American poet, in ways which, like his gayness, the poems only indirectly embody.
It might be fitting, in conclusion, to give a couple of examples of some characteristic Ashbery, if only to indicate that the work does contain more variety than might at first seem apparent. There is cryptic Ashbery, as in the early, and well known, poem, ‘They Dream Only of America’ . Some kind of story is apparently being narrated: a couple have driven hundreds of miles (after a reference to murder) and have stopped apparently at a petrol station after “his headache grew worse”. Some very ordinary items – a cigar, a key – are mentioned which may or may not be clues to something (perhaps a murder?) We have the useful information: “I would not have broken my leg if I had not fallen/Against the living room table.”
It is the obliquity, the hovering between significance – perhaps national significance, given the title and some other lines in the work – and its absence, that makes the poem so arresting. A rare precedent, I think, is provided by TS Eliot’s Sweeney Among the Nightingales, where events similarly are mainly offstage and may or may not matter a damn.
There is also what might be called theoretical Ashbery, the Ashbery who expounds the principles of his own poetry and explores what writing poems actually means. The best instance of this is the justly famous little poem, Paradoxes and Oxymorons, which, despite its off-putting title, is one of his most accessible works. It begins, very quietly, “This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level”, and, in fact, it is.
It goes on to explore the relation between this poem and a mysterious “you”, who, as almost always, is partly the poet himself, but also, in this instance, almost certainly the reader as well. The intricacies of the relationship between the poem and this “you” are developed and revised over four brief four-line stanzas (“The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and cannot.”). Finally it comes to rest with the extraordinary comment: “The poem is you.” Rarely has the relation between poem, poet and reader been brought to life with such intimacy and immediacy.
Then there is uncanny Ashbery, one of his finest modes, and one on which Bloom has written very perceptively. This poem, called This Room is the first one in the late collection, Your Name Here. I shall refrain from commentary, since it either works for a reader or does not, except to repeat that in Ashbery, the pronoun “you” usually refers to the poet himself:
“The room I entered was a dream of this room.
Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine.
The oval portrait
of a dog was me at an early age.
Something shimmers, something is hushed up.
We had macaroni for lunch every day
except Sunday, when a small quail was induced
to be served to us. Why do I tell you these things?
You are not even here.”
(If a reader finds this kind of poem appealing, as I do, The Problem of Anxiety, in the collection Can You Hear Bird, is another fine example.)
Finally, is Ashbery worth reading? Why, yes. Is the whole of Ashbery worth reading? Emphatically, no. He is a poet who lends himself particularly well to selection, and fortunately there are no fewer than two good Selected Ashberys (both chosen by himself, his own best reader, as well as best critic). The first, Selected Poems of 1985, contains poems up to then, obviously, and then there is a volume called Notes From the Air of 2007, which selects from the later work. Selection, of course, cannot do justice to the longer poems, so I would also read The Skaters, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Girls on the Run (a poem inspired by the work of Henry Darger) and A Wave. (Rita Dove’s recent Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry includes the whole of Self-Portrait.)
I wrote at the start of this essay about Ashbery’s work as a poetic of defeat. It does seem to me, at the end, that this is the essence of his work, which can, to repeat, be seen as an incredibly eloquent, incredibly daring construct in the face of that undoing. In his own way, Ashbery is a very honest poet: the following lines, from the poem which I first quoted, Grand Galop, may not be entirely fair to him as a summation of his career. They are unlikely to be emblazoned on the walls of university career offices, to become a slogan for the rising generations of poets or of any other calling. But in their sheer embracing of negativity, of non-doing, of undoing, they are deeply satisfying and deeply resonant:
“But there is this consolation:
If it turns out to be not worth doing, I haven’t done it;
If the sight appals me, I have seen nothing;
If the victory is pyrrhic, I haven’t won it.”
- Terence Killeen is Research Scholar at the James Joyce Centre, Dublin