Ashbery: Collected Poems 1956-1987, John Ashbery. The Library of America. 1042pp, $40.00.
Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems, John Ashbery. Ecco. 364pp, $16.95.
The period following WWII was a turbulent time politically, culturally, poetically. Brave people hid in shadow from the new-found threats to civilization as they knew it—the bomb, the pill, the Red scare—and each, in its own way, seemed poised to ruin. Artists banded together for protection and support and for their pursuit of the new: the Black Mountain School, the New York School, Deep Image, The Beat Movement, the San Francisco Revival. Here, two of them will be under discussion, as we examine the poetry of John Ashbery and Jack Spicer.
Poets.org provides the following definition:
The New York School of poetry began around 1960 in New York City and included poets such as John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch, and Frank O’Hara. Heavily influenced by surrealism and modernism, the poetry of the New York School was serious but also ironic and incorporated an urban sensibility into much of the work.
Abstract expressionist art was also a major influence, and the New York School poets had strong artistic and personal relationships with artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem DeKooning. Both O’Hara and James Schuyler worked at the Museum of Modern Art, and Guest, Ashbery, and Schuyler were critics for Art News. O’Hara also took inspiration from artists, entitling two poems “Joseph Cornell” and “On Seeing Larry Rivers.” O’Hara’s poem “Why I am Not a Painter” includes the lines “I am not a painter, I am a poet. / Why? I think I would rather be / a painter, but I am not.”
The Literary Encyclopedia describes their poetry: “Most of the group also to some degree or another shared an easy-going, democratic rhetoric as well as a concern for the personal in their poetry. They were all fond of indirection, the indeterminate and the flamboyant, at the same time cultivating a concern for the daily and casual in life.”
The New York School is represented here by one of its most famous practitioners: John Ashbery. From Poets.org:
John Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York, on July 28, 1927. He is the author of more than twenty books of poetry. Ashbery has won nearly every major American award for poetry. His collection A Wave (1984) won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize; Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award; and Some Trees (1956) was selected by W. H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Series. He was also the first English-language poet to win the Grand Prix de Biennales Internationales de Poésie (Brussels), and has also received the Bollingen Prize, the English Speaking Union Prize, the Feltrinelli Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, two Ingram Merrill Foundation grants, the MLA Common Wealth Award in Literature, the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize, the Frank O’Hara Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award, and fellowships from The Academy of American Poets, the Fulbright Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation.
Paul Hoover, editor of Postmodern American Poetry, says of Ashbery’s poetics that it “draws from a poetics of ‘indeterminacy,’ which favors the process of writing over the drawing of conclusions; while his work is lyrical and meditative, it resists closure and narrative. Not surprisingly, his chosen form is the long poem.”
The Library of America puts out no-frills publications, often of the collected works of prominent poets. In its edition of Ashbery’s collected poems, there is no introduction, no forward, nothing except the poetry. Although book titles are indicated, the poems themselves are thrown together. Ashbery’s Collected Poems 1956-1987 begins with Some Trees.
The poem “The Instruction Manual” begins “As I sit looking out of a window of the building,” which immediately raises questions. Why “the building” and not “a building”? After all, Ashbery didn’t specifically identify “the window.” And as he never completely identifies “the building” either, we must read this as being all buildings in all cities, “this building” being metonymic. But it’s more than that. “The building” has become personified into some dark imminence. Something from which the occupant, the ‘I’, is seeking to escape—in this case through daydream “Of dim Guadalajara! City of rose-colored flowers! / City I wanted most to see, and most did not see, in Mexico!”
From that point, Ashbery weaves a most detailed, realistic picture of this dream realm he has entered as he follows one of the boys “a little older, has a toothpick in his teeth.” And, in the end, “And as a last breeze freshens the top of the weathered old tower, I turn my gaze / Back to the instruction manual which has made me dream of Guadalajara.” This is not the poetic drama of Eliot but that of Yeats dressed in the garments of Surrealism, but a softer Surrealism than that of Breton.
The Tennis Court Oath, Ashbery’s third book, published in 1962, brings Dada to the door of modern American writing. The title poem decomposes into fragments that could be fragments of conversation mixed with description, but then there are points in the poem where even this would be an inadequate description:
What had you been thinking about
the face studiously bloodied
heaven blotted region
I go on loving you like water but
there is a terrible breath in the way all of this
You were not elected president, yet won the race
All the way through fog and drizzle
When you read it was sincere the coasts
stammered with unintentional villages the
horse strains fatigued I guess . . . the calls . . .
There have been statements made that this is Ashbery’s least favourite book and one that he wishes he had never written. But that would be selling this book short, not recognizing the greatness that inheres in these writings—a myopia Ashbery does not possess. There are moments in this book that presage language poetry, in particular the disjointed sentences of Ron Silliman. Look at “They Dream Only of America,” whose penultimate stanza is a model, “I would not have broken my leg if had not fallen / Against the living room table. What is it to be back / Beside the bed? There is nothing to do / For our liberation, except wait in the horror of it.” Here we also have the friction between the line and the sentence, which Lyn Hejinian is so fond of. I’m not sure if Ashbery got his songs wrong in “Two Sonnets.” In the first, “Dido,” the concluding line reads “Inside it they had a record of ‘The St. Louis Blues,’” but the fifth line in the second, “The Idiot,” is clearly a line from St. James Infirmary Blues: “I’ve wandered the wide world over.” The final poem in The Tennis Court Oath contains a couple of examples of what would become Ashbery’s signature, the list of three unrelated items. For example:
. . . The apothecary jars,
She was aware of
“Can I give you a hand?”
The impetus behind this is the French tradition of correspondences, which began with Baudelaire and the Symbolists but was subsequently carried over into Dada, via Picabia, and Surrealism, via Breton.
In 1975, Ashbery published Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award—the three major American poetry prizes. Hoover, a lover of the long poem, notes “one of his primary devices, periphrasis (roundabout speech or circumlocution) is consistent with the unusual length of some of his work . . . he intends to push poetry past the ‘dismal two-note theme / Of some sodden “dump” or “lament” into a fuller kind of reference . . . the unbegun journey to the unattainable place,’ a phrase appropriate to Ashbery’s work in general.” As to the title poem, “based on Parmigianino’s painting of the same title, it displays the self-reflectiveness of his poetry. But Ashbery avoids narcissism by multiplying and confusing the perspective; it is the movement of consciousness rather than the narrow concerns of self that is finally depicted.” “Scheherazade” reflects this perambulation of mind as it wanders through the poem concluding with:
It is we who make this
Jungle and call it space, naming each root,
Each serpent, for the sound of the name
As it clinks dully against our pleasure,
Indifference that is pleasure. And what would they be
Without an audience to restrict the innumerable
Passes and swipes, restored to good humor as it issues
Into the impervious evening air. So in some way
Although the arithmetic is incorrect
The balance is restored because it
Balances, knowing it prevails,
And the man who made the same mistake twice is exonerated.
Here is the complexity of Buddhist thought boiled down a simple idea: things are because they are—enough said. And although each of us “makes our own bed,” we are permitted to lie in it even if we repeatedly make it wrong. Such is not insanity but life. And as to life and self-reflectivity, can one find better than “Lithuanian Dance Band,” where the quotidian is accepted as the norm, where loneliness is a natural adjunct of the writer’s life:
For we are alone too and that’s sad isn’t it
Yet you are meant to be alone at least part of the time
You must be in order to work and yet it always seems so unnatural
As though seeing people were intrinsic to life which it just might be
And then somehow the loneliness is more real and more human
You know not just the scarecrow but the whole landscape
And the crows peacefully pecking where the harrow has passed
The title poem reflects Ashbery’s occupation as an art critic. Essentially, that is what is represented here: a criticism of Parmigianino’s painting Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror extended into the entirety of Renaissance painting and including direct quotations from critics, in particular, Sydney Freedberg: “Sydney Freedberg in his / Parmigianino says of it: Realism in this portrait.” But this is extended into the ruminations that Ashbery makes as he ponders the painting, lifting it from mere criticism into art. Ashbery always returns to the painting for reinforcement, a highly unusual but extremely effective means of controlling the pace of the poem and grounding what would otherwise be mere philosophical speculations, mere discursivity.
The point of overlap between Collected Poems 1956-1987 and Notes from the Air is reached in 1987′s April Galleons, which raises the issue of a Collected versus a Selected collection of poems. In a Collected, the editor is obliged to include everything that the poet ever published, which generally leaves a vast body of unpublished poems sitting around. The question arises: Does the Selected better represent the poet’s wishes in that it chooses to put into print only that which had been deemed sufficient by the poet? Do we do the poet an injustice by publishing material the poet had determined was not up to her meticulous standards? Or does the unpublished serve to establish those standards by showing to the poetry-reading public (supposing that there still is such a thing) that which didn’t make the grade? Bearing those considerations in mind, we turn now to Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems.
Notes from the Air opens, without introduction (something a Selected Poems should never do), with April Galleons. The first poem selected, “Vetiver,” shows a new side of Ashbery: the ecologist:
And in some room someone examines his youth,
Finds it dry and hollow, porous to the touch,
O keep me with you, unless the outdoors
Embraces both of us, unites us, unless
The birdcatchers put away their twigs,
The fishermen haul in their sleek empty nets
And others become part of the immense crowd
Around this bonfire, a situation
That has come to mean us to us, and the crying
In the leaves is saved, the last silver drops.
Hotel Lautréamont was published in 1992. It contains the title poem, “Notes from the Air,” with its opening, Surrealist stanza “A yak is a prehistoric cabbage: of that, at least, we may be sure. / But tell us, sages of the solarium, why is that light / still hidden back there, among house plants and rubber sponges? / For surely the blessed moment arrived at midday.” But this is not the Surrealism of Ashbery’s younger days. Are we beginning to see maturity enter into the poetry of this rebel, the toning down of rhetoric? Or, perhaps, he’s only just now catching up with himself. Which doesn’t mean to say that he’s not still good, not still one of the best as the pantoum in the title poem of this book, “Hotel Lautréamont” demonstrates:
Research has shown that ballads were produced by all of society
working as a team. They didn’t just happen. There was no guesswork.
The people, then, knew what they wanted and how to get it.
We see the results in works as diverse as “Windsor Forest” and “The Wife of
Working as a team, they didn’t just happen. There was no guesswork.
The horns of elfland swing past, and in a few seconds
we see the results in works as diverse as “Windsor Forest” and “The Wife of
or, on a more modern note, in the finale of the Sibelius violin concerto.
Ashbery was not content to merely repeat lines in appropriate spots. Compare the fourth line of stanza 1 with the third of stanza 2 where the sentence has been demoted to a dependent clause.
“About To Move,” from And the Stars Were Shining (1994), is a lesson in how to write Surrealist poetry:
And the bellybuttons all danced around
and the ironing board ambled back to the starting gate
and meaningless violence flew helplessly overhead
which was too much for the stair
Better to get in bed lest they cry
since Zeus the evil one has fixed his beady eye on us
and will never come to help us
One cannot help but hear Kenneth Patchen in that fourth line. Unfortunately, in the second stanza the same word is used to end the lines—”Do not go back it said for if there is one less of you / at the time of counting it will go bad with you”—an annoying tic that has begun to creep more and more into Ashbery’s poetry. “And the Stars Were Shining,” a long, multi-part poem containing all of the Surrealism and rambling discursiveness concludes this section. Taking just a small piece from part VIII as an example: “Then the magician entered his chamber. / Too bad there are no more willows / but we’ll satisfy his bent commands anyway, / have a party in the dark, / throw love away, go neck in the park, / fill out each form in sextuplicate.” The rhyme between “dark” and “park” is perfect and perfectly placed—an ejaculation. And then, once Ashbury has rambled on for 20 full pages, he reaches the end by asking “my shoelaces were untied, and—am I forgetting anything?”(154). Absolutely a brilliant ending to a brilliant poem.
“. . . By An Earthquake”, in the 1995 collection, Can You Hear, Bird, is one of the strangest “poems” you’re ever likely to read:
Beatrice loved Alvin before he married.
B, second wife of A, discovers that B-3, A’s first wife, was unfaithful.
B, wife of A, dons the mask and costume of B-3, A’s paramour, and meets A as
B-3; his memory returns and he forgets B-3, and goes back to B.
A discovers “Hortensius,” a lost dialogue of Cicero, and returns it to the crevice
where it lay.
But, then, this entire book is Dadaist. How else do you describe a poem about the great authors and what they wrote when they were asleep? Apparently, quite a bit—if you believe Ashbery. And take note of “The Problem of Anxiety” where
I’ve saved the descriptions of chicken sandwiches,
and the glass eye that stares at me in amazement
from the bronze mantel, and will never be appeased.
1998′s Wakefulness awakens the poet to a stream of consciousness in “Last Night I Dreamed I Was In Bucharest”:
seeking to convince the supreme Jester
that I am indeed the man in those commercials.
Simultaneously it peaked in Bolivia, the moon,
I mean. Then we were walking over what seemed to be
heather, or was called that. The downtown riot
of free speech occurred. Plastered to its muzzle,
Randy the dog’s decoding apparatus went astray.
Jumping ahead to Ashbery’s most recent book, Where Shall I Wander (2005), we read in “Coma Bernices”:
The snowball is a model for the soul because billions of souls are embedded in it, though none can dominate or even characterize it. In this the snowball is like the humblest soul that ever walked the earth. The rapacious, the raw, are its satellites. It wants you to believe its core is the outermost shell of the universe, which may or may not be true. Each of us has the choice of believing it, but we cannot believe in both things without becoming separated from our core of enigma, which soldiers on in good time and bad, protecting us alike from the consequences of inaction and misguided enthusiasm. The snowball would melt before it would release us from our woes.
Ashbery had begun to explore prose poetry early on in his career and has stuck with it ever since developing this into newer and larger dimensions of poetry. He still remains the radical after all those years of being considered the best poet in America, after those numerous awards won, accolades received, so much so that he would dare to write a thirteen-line poem and title it “Sonnet: More of Same.” Perhaps it is.
Now, let’s move to the West Coast and what’s been happening . . .
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