Variations on an introduction by Charles North of John Ashbery
Find the full introduction here.
I find a lot of things of interest by cruising by Ron Silliman’s blog every few days. The other day, I found this introduction of John Ashbery’s reading from a few weeks ago at The Poetry Project, by Charles North.
“Most poets, as we all know, . . . don’t ‘produce’—really produce—after the age of 40; that is, if they’re lucky enough to produce that long.”
This can’t be true, can it? Is the world that poetry allows really one that is only visited by the young? I hope not. I heard one time Gerald Stern talking about this. He said there were two types of poets: those of the first half, and those of the second half. Which is, those who did what they were going to do before 40, and those who did what they were going to do after 40. He placed himself in the “after 40” group. It’s an impressive group, with Stevens being the poster over-40 child.
Who is the poster child for those who run up to 40 and then quit? It would be easy to say Plath, I suppose. And safe. It’s an interesting question nonetheless.
“When I began coming to readings in the late 1960s, I kept hearing about this mysterious, experimental poet . . . who . . . was not only secretly épater-ing the bourgeoisie, but was demonstrating radically new ways to write poems and to conceive of poetry.”
I want so much from this statement, as there is so much more out there. But where is it? Where is this new conception delineated in transferable ways? Here’s a quick story: A professor I know, who is in his mid 60s, has had a difficult time with Ashbery over the six years I’ve known him. (I came here six years ago, waving my Ashbery flag.) He wants to be receptive. He is receptive, even. But the ways he was taught to read poetry—to enjoy poetry—do not directly pertain to reading Ashbery (and, by extension, a category of contemporary poetry). How do you read (and teach! It has to be transferable and testable!) poetry that resists the logical progressions of the New Critics (Robert Frost & Richard Wilbur type poems), or the personalities unfolding over time and event of the post-confessional poets (Rita Dove & Tony Hoagland & literally thousands of others), or even the sort of little thought machines typified by Billy Collins & Kay Ryan?
What I mean is that 90% of poetry being published today can be read through the lens of Close Reading and Paraphrase and Extrapolation . . . until you get to Ashbery (and of course I’m skipping over a lot of poets to make this leap: Gertrude Stein, for example, but I think they’re part of a different story [and of course, I'm sot saying that one shouldn't read ashbery closely - I think close attention is the best attention]).
I’ve spoken with this professor friend of mine several times about how I read an Ashbery poem, and the pleasures and questions I find there, and I find this is a way that - I suppose - could be taught in a literature course, as a way to read poetry: a rather suggestive version of variations on a theme (often stated in the title or opening gesture of an Ashbery poem) that accrue into an abstract investigation, or a prismatic investigation, of the way people think and behave. I find it radically inclusive and human. And it is something an essay test might be able to approach, I think. I’ll try it in the fall and get back to you.
But, of course, a university application is different than a cultural application, and that’s where the real questions about Ashbery and his “difficulty” reside. I was thinking of this very thing yesterday when reading the liner notes to the excellent “Sonny Rollins: the freelance years” on Riverside. Zan Stewart writes, about Rollins:
“Sonny was then—and is now—a consummately melodic artist who built a solo with grand logic, using a song’s theme as an improvisational matrix to be revisited at will, creating stunning composition-like statements comprised of connected fragments of developed, improvised thought. And, perhaps more than any other since Parker, he used rhythm as a guiding force, playing with the assuredness of a drummer, squeezing the time, expanding it, and always, like a cat, landing on his feet.”
If one would think of something akin to this as a composition technique for the writing of poetry, Ashbery would seem to me at least to be the natural example. So, with fifty years of writing and conversations surrounding jazz, I would think approaching Ashbery from this angle wouldn’t be much of a stretch. It seems to me that Ashbery’s “difficulty” then is only difficult in the way that the Rogers & Hammerstein composition, “My Favorite Things” is “difficult” when John Coltrane plays it, as opposed to when Julie Andrews sings it. It’s not “difficult” at all. It’s just a different way to approach things, built on different methods, toward different ends. I find this basic idea mirrored in some fashion by nearly everyone who writes about Ashbery, for instance, I’ll go back to Charles North:
“I find Ashbery’s poetry as surprising and inspiring as I did when I began writing. Partly it’s because, like his pal Frank O’Hara, he just goes on his nerve. But in his case, the “just” contains multitudes. Going on his nerve wouldn’t mean much if his poems weren’t so often startlingly original, or moving, or endlessly intriguing, or funny, or exploratory about both the outer and inner worlds, in the complexity both deserve. Which of course makes his poems difficult if approached with the usual expectations; to me, a part of his extraordinary achievement is to have changed our expectations. I’ll also venture to say that his complex investigations of his own states of mind, which include conscious and unconscious aspects, make a good bit of the other poetry around seem ultimately superficial.”
[. . . ]
“When poets I know wonder why he hasn’t yet received the Nobel Prize for Literature, the consensus is that he, unlike most of those who have won the prize, is not perceived as engagé. To me, and I believe many others, there’s no writer whose poems are more engaged with what it means to be human. Poetry sadly, hopefulness notwithstanding, doesn’t make much happen. But it does show us to ourselves, which I would suggest is more vital these days than it has ever been, and has a far more vital relation to the material that poetry is often supposed to be engaged with, than ever before.”
He shouldn’t be, but John Ashbery is an unlikely candidate for the Nobel Prize, for much the same reason he’s never been poet laureate. It has a lot to do with the delusions of the picture-perfect. In other words, for a person to be considered for such things, that person has to participate in at least some version of cultural realism. That’s just not Ashbery’s style. For me, that’s good news. We have enough poets doing that. And now I hear he has a new book of poems, Planisphere, coming out at the end of this year.