Notes Toward a Conversation about John Ashbery I Wish I were Having
I am a completist for several poets. In the category of 60-ish and older, they include (among others) Martha Ronk, Bin Ramke, Rae Armantrout, Mary Jo Bang, Cole Swensen, and John Ashbery. Do these poets bear any resemblance to each other? Only if one squints real hard, I’m thinking, but in each I find a poet working the human center through the difficulties of our historical present. These have been rather inhuman times, and each of these poets uses their own singular version of unflinching observation to build what I see as a very personal and humanly present consciousness, one that doesn’t ignore the difficulties of our time to create art. Their approaches to poetry are certain and strange, and, for me, persuasive. In other words, they all do what good poets are supposed to do, and have done, throughout history.
Of all of them, the most famous, and most maligned (in some circles) and most admired (in others) is John Ashbery. So I begin with him.
It’s difficult to put into words my love for Ashbery’s poetry, but what I keep coming up with is its beauty. Who would’ve thought beauty could come from hearing the description of Ashbery’s poetry from some corners. But it does. Beauty of phrasing, of the sound of the American language in its idiom, unencumbered from most formal artistic overlays, and finally, its vision of human consciousness as it extends to the weather, the seasons.
Too much has been made of Ashbery’s post-modernism. It’s a useful partial fiction to say Ashbery is to the post-modern as Stevens is to Modernism. It’s convenient, as a trip to Micronesia (Federated States of) is convenient as a way to test geography, but it doesn’t do much past a kind of game show approach to literary analysis. Likewise, Ashbery could be called (has been?) the Derrida in verse, for much of what one might say of Derrida’s project in philosophy can be transferred to Ashbery easily in regards his project in aesthetics.
None of these words are magic words. They don’t, in the end, explain Ashbery. Ashbery’s undecidability is a wrench in the works of any comments on his poetry, even those commenting on the nature of his undecidability, for these undecidable wholes also participate in ways of knowing and ways of structuring which are largely decidable.
Ashbery’s poems, in my reading of them, seem less to do with the singular condition of possibility, than they do the myriad avenues one can take to and from a situation, less interested in buttoning down a possible to say, than encountering what surrounds, which is actualized in an encounter with his singular voice and organizational acumen. If Rimbaud (to whom Ashbery has been compared) gives us “je est un autre,” then Ashbery counters with “I is a We.” There’s a large human / humane difference between the two.
What is order? As none of these words are magic words.
Ashbery’s poetry is an extreme case of showing as saying, where the words function both as unities of sense and as the noise within which consciousness operates. This makes a paraphrase of a poem by John Ashbery difficult.
My Erotic Double
He says he doesn’t feel like working today.
It’s just as well. Here in the shade
Behind the house, protected from street noises,
One can go over all kinds of old feeling,
Throw some away, keep others.
Between us gets very intense when there are
Fewer feelings around to confuse things.
Another go-round? No, but the last things
You always find to say are charming, and rescue me
Before the night does. We are afloat
On our dreams as on a barge made of ice,
Shot through with questions and fissures of starlight
That keep us awake, thinking about the dreams
As they are happening. Some occurrence. You said it.
I said it but I can hide it. But I choose not to.
Thank you. You are a very pleasant person.
Thank you. You are too.
Paraphrasing Ashbery’s poetry is difficult, yes, but why should one want to paraphrase? Why is that the important thing to do with a poem? A poem, an art object can also be radically itself, as meaningful, or delightful, or disconcerting or simply existential as a walk through a crowd of competing monologues or the table next to you at a restaurant. Maybe important things happen this way as well.
There’s a voyeuristic aspect to this akin to confessional poetry (whatever that was), but it’s organized, it’s been organized. I don’t feel there’s a randomness to an Ashbery poem anymore than a randomness to anyone else’s poetry. Ashbery just allows what comes to remain, without getting smoothed over into a simple unity. Still, his poems are unities, as they exist under his voice, orchestrating the choir, a polyphonic choir at times, but still a choir, beautiful in its fullness.
I believe it is for this reason, not his more surface post-modernism, Ashbery will be important to future generations, even as such a claim has a whistling in the dark element to it. But whistling can also be a form of beauty.
As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat
I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free.
Elsewhere we are as sitting in a place where sunlight
Filters down, a little at a time,
Waiting for someone to come. Harsh words are spoken,
As the sun yellows the green of the maple tree....
So this was all, but obscurely
I felt the stirrings of new breath in the pages
Which all winter long had smelled like an old catalogue.
New sentences were starting up. But the summer
Was well along, not yet past the mid-point
But full and dark with the promise of that fullness,
That time when one can no longer wander away
And even the least attentive fall silent
To watch the thing that is prepared to happen.
A look of glass stops you
And you walk on shaken: was I the perceived?
Did they notice me, this time, as I am,
Or is it postponed again? The children
Still at their games, clouds that arise with a swift
Impatience in the afternoon sky, then dissipate
As limpid, dense twilight comes.
Only in that tooting of a horn
Down there, for a moment, I thought
The great, formal affair was beginning, orchestrated,
Its colors concentrated in a glance, a ballade
That takes in the whole world, now, but lightly,
Still lightly, but with wide authority and tact.
The prevalence of those gray flakes falling?
They are sun motes. You have slept in the sun
Longer than the sphinx, and are none the wiser for it.
Come in. And I thought a shadow fell across the door
But it was only her come to ask once more
If I was coming in, and not to hurry in case I wasn't.
The night sheen takes over. A moon of cistercian pallor
Has climbed to the center of heaven, installed,
Finally involved with the business of darkness.
And a sigh heaves from all the small things on earth,
The books, the papers, the old garters and union-suit buttons
Kept in a white cardboard box somewhere, and all the lower
Versions of cities flattened under the equalizing night.
The summer demands and takes away too much,
But night, the reserved, the reticent, gives more than it takes.
So Ashbery’s poems are not directly, or strictly paraphrasable, but they are intelligible. They are available to be read. On the flip side, all poetry, all language at some point can become ambiguous. This idea of “clarity,” so tossed around by some, especially to criticize Ashbery or others to deal roughly in similar idioms, is a chimera, a fantasy of assumed commonality used to divide an “us” from a “them.”
Artists are always facing the problem of bringing that which the art object contains within reach while knowing art will always be at a remove, out of reach. It’s always been so, for Shakespeare as well as Elizabeth Bishop. The muses are invoked, but do not show themselves. The fish is always already not there. My mistresses eyes might be nothing like the sun, but it’s the sun we see as we read that line. Art deals in the there / not there. Don’t imagine a hammer. Indeed.
Fractal geometry plays a neat trick with the Paradox of Zeno, as all measurements, as one attempts to get more exact, approach infinity, making all coastlines infinitely long. Ha! Math is fun again, and infinity is contained within a finite space. So what happen when we live with such concepts and then look up?
Hasn't the sky? Returned from moving the other
Authority recently dropped, wrested as much of
That sever sunshine as you need now on the way
You go. The reason why it happened only since
You woke up is letting the steam disappear
From those clouds when the landscape all around
Is hilly sites that will have to be reckoned
Into the total for there to be more air: that is,
More fitness, read into the undeduced result, than land.
This means never getting any closer to the basic
Principle operating behind it than to the distracted
Entity of a mirage. The half-meant, half-perceived
Motions of fronds out of idle depths that are
Summer. And expansion into little draughts.
The reply wakens easily, darting from
Untruth to willed moment, scarcely called into being
Before it swells, the way a waterfall
Drums at different levels. Each moment
Of utterance is the true one; likewise none are true,
Only is the bounding from air to air, a serpentine
Gesture which hides the truth behind a congruent
Message, the way air hides the sky, is, in fact,
Tearing it limb from limb this very moment: but
The sky has pleaded already and this is about
As graceful a kind of non-absence as either
Has a right to expect: whether it's the form of
Some creator who has momentarily turned away,
Marrying detachment with respect, so that the pieces
Are seen as parts of a spectrum, independent
Yet symbolic of their staggered times of arrival;
Whether on the other hand all of it is to be
Seen as no luck. A recurring whiteness like
The face of stone pleasure, urging forward as
Nostrils what only meant dust. But the argument,
That is its way, has already left these behind: it
Is, it would have you believe, the white din up ahead
That matters: unformed yells, rocketings,
Affected turns, and tones of voice called
By upper shadows toward some cloud of belief
Or its unstated circumference. But the light
Has already gone from there too and it may be that
It is lines contracting into a plane. We hear so much
Of its further action that at last it seems that
It is we, our taking it into account rather, that are
The reply that prompted the question, and
That the latter, like a person waking on a pillow
Has the sensation of having dreamt the whole thing,
Of returning to participate in that dream, until
The last word is exhausted; certainly this is
Peace of a sort, like nets drying in the sun,
That we must progress toward the whole thing
About an hour ago. As long as it is there
You will desire it as its tag of wall sinks
Deeper as though hollowed by sunlight that
Just fits over it; it is both mirage and the little
That was present, the miserable totality
Mustered at any given moment, like your eyes
And all they speak of, such as your hands, in lost
Accents beyond any dream of ever wanting them again.
To have this to be constantly coming back from—
Nothing more, really, than surprise at your absence
And preparing to continue the dialogue into
Those mysterious and near regions that are
Precisely the time of its being furthered.
This is what I find in Ashbery, and why I love his work.