Thursday, June 04, 2009

Variations on an introduction by Charles North of John Ashbery

John Ashbery - Photo(c) by Star Black

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.

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.

Charles North:

“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.


At 6/05/2009 4:10 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

i taught him in my modpo lit course for about two decades, and it was challenging, yes, but not impossible (i relied on the essays in Bloom's "John Ashbery")... most of the students found him less difficult than (say) Pound's Mauberley/Cantos . . .

he certainly deserves the Nobel if any poet on the planet does . . .

may i invite you to look at an "appreciation" i did of one of his poems:


At 6/06/2009 8:03 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

For decades people have talked about Ashbery as a city poet. It's a shortcut to kind of understanding the way his poems unfold, but I've always thought of Ashbery as a very rural, or even exurban, poet.

I think looking at much of his work that way is profitable, where the flippings and energy or the city is exchanged for the organic meandering of the country. And its logic of the seasons, vs the city's logic of commerce.

In that way, I'm with you.

At 6/06/2009 6:31 PM, Blogger Johannes said...

What do you mean by "cultural realism"? Do you mean politically engaged? Because the Nobel Prize has gone to some very much not realist writers.

It is a bit surprising that he hasn't won the Nobel because in Sweden he is very well known in Sweden. All his books are more or less immediately translated.

He's almost always tipped as a possible winner in the Swedish press before the year's winner is announced.

Also, Ashbery was the laureate of MTV, don't forget.


At 6/06/2009 6:56 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Yeah, I was trying to say "politically engaged" without really saying it . . . as it seems they either have to have a personal narrative that can be spun politically, or else they have a very surface-level engagement in social issues.

Ashbery has both, actually, doesn't he? But because of his style, people don't sign on. The narrative that's been sold about Ashbery is one of ellusiveness and cleverness and Popeye, when really it's just as full of "The One Thing That Can Save America"-type things.

At 6/07/2009 7:03 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Ashbery, Parra, Bonnefoy, Tanikawa, Enzensberger,

the list goes on and on of poets who should already have Nobels——

i never understood why they don't split it and give two every year, one to prose and one to poetry——

just another example of how poetry is undervalued and enslaved . . .

At 6/07/2009 7:54 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Indeed. As they say:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

At 6/09/2009 6:49 AM, Blogger Lally said...

I read with Ashbery is a series the Smithsonian did in 1972 of supposed "major American poets" (well, my elevation to that category didn't last long). It was six poets, I can't remember who exactly, except that we were paired on three different nights (I read with Lucille Clifton, if I remember correctly, and was offended by a poem she read about Little Richard putting down homosexuality as I heard it at the time). Can't remember who John read with, but it was my first time actually hearing him in person, after rejecting his poetry for being too "siddidy" (in my terms, just felt it was exclusive in ways that I still had a chip on my shoulder about, class and all that). But having started out as a jazz musician and lover, that night I got it, much as your post has it. I heard him using individual words as jazz musicians used notes to first of all create a pattern that said something about their imaginations and intelligence, as well as chops and feelings, and once I let go of the need for any connection other than musically, I could "hear" what Ashbery was saying with this language-improvisation kind of riffing thing and almost fell off my chair from the impact of his brilliance (it probably helped that I was also stoned at the time). Afterward we went out and became great friends. He turned out to not only be one of the smartest people I ever met, but also one of the most generous with his time and attention. Nobel or not.

At 6/09/2009 4:32 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


It's a nice analogue, I think. And a way to "get" Ashbery. Maybe. I've never read Ashbery mention jazz in any interviews. I wonder if there's any overt influence, or if it's just a kind of 1950s zeitgeist sympathy.

Do you know him, then? Does he have much interest in jazz improvisation structures?

At 6/09/2009 9:44 PM, Blogger Lally said...

I didn't mean he was consciously imitating jazz, I meant that equating it with that creative process made it possible for me to "hear" him, the deeper meanings and intentions and random connections and leaps of imagination beneath what the words would usually mean and imply etc. Just dittoing your Rollins insight. It was in my ears (and mind and experience etc.) not John's deliberate strategy. It allowed me to get over his use of cultural references that intimidated me but I interpreted as elitist (though they were and still are actually mostly popular culture references, but not the way I saw it at the time) and the challenge of the word and phrase and image juxtapositions that seemed deliberately "difficult" then, but now seem much more benign, just his way of making the music of his poems. (And I'd already met and become friends with Bruce Andrews so had a take on the whole "language" (not named that yet) idea and had poems that displayed that approach as well, but to me John's nonlinear language connections posed more of a challenge because the posture seemed more remote and the vocabulary more insular.)

At 6/10/2009 6:16 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Apologies! I didn't mean to insinuate that you were saying that. I just wondered, as I was reading your comment, whether Ashbery had much of a direct relationship with jazz musicians (or jazz improvisation theory). I’ve had that question before, as I agree with you that approaching Ashbery’s work with something of a “jazz consciousness” can set someone up with a much better relationship with what’s going on than say, New Critical interpretations of how poems work. I was wondering if that’s just a coincidence, or if Ashbery has ever written on or talked about jazz improvisation. The way he takes a concept (say the concept of a “Worsening Situation”) and then “plays” it, through the registers, is brilliant (in much the way that Sonny Rollins’ “Blue 7” is brilliant [and, I believe, completely improvised]). If such an essay hasn’t been written yet, it should.

For me (maybe only for me), this is a fascinating question. And the way the arts intersect (really isn’t jazz improvisation another version of “collage narrative” that was present in painting for decades [and poetry, of course], and now has been shown to be the way human memory works?).

At 6/10/2009 10:36 AM, Blogger Lally said...

I didn't take offense, just meant to clarify. You should write that essay on Ashbery and jazz. Sounds like you know something about it. And yes, I too tie the collage idea and the jazz thing together. After all, it was "The Jazz Age" when collage became a dominant technique in art (Braque's painted collage effects, Schwitters tear outs and found images, etc.). Both jazz and modernist artists and poets were responding to the speed of not just "modern" life but modern technological advances (recordings, radio, air flight, "talkies" etc.) and the leaps of attention it created in the mind, much like Ash's poetry, and others before and since. To me Ashbery's technique is more like Monk's, whose unique compositional and improvisational style depended obviously on a deep musical intuition that ignored standard harmonics and took flated chords and minor chords to new (and seemingly at first discordant) places for the ear to follow. But at the same time his sound was always consistent (as Ashbery), etc.

At 6/11/2009 7:46 AM, Blogger Johannes said...

Also, you should read Jed Rasula's article about "Jazzbandism" in Georgia Review a while back. The Dadaists thought jazz music was synonymous with avant-gardism. Huelsenbeck accompanied himself on "jazz drums" while reading at the Cabaret Voltaire. Or the Finnish Dadaist Henry Parland whose poems I've translated: in his work modernity, dada and jazz are all synonomous.


At 6/11/2009 9:11 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Which has a strong claim. The only problem with it is that now I'm getting all these parody images from American popular culture flashing before me: the painful little black berets, the finger snaps, the ax-murderer wives . . .

At 6/20/2009 8:23 AM, Blogger anon said...

yeah this isn't totally new to me to be honest. i appreciate the post though. obviously the beats can be read that way and naturally, at least to me, the NY school has some affinities with the Beats. I think OHara said jokingly something about being the rich-man's Ginsberg? But Jazz is too diverse to use as a singular term to describe the signature of a specific person (or even group) I wouldn't compare Ashbery with anything Bop for example.

But I'm glad you posted this instead of comparing him to painting and using the term "painterly poet" over and over and over and over like others have....

At 6/20/2009 6:42 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hey R,

Yeah, I'm know I'm not being very cutting-edge with this, but like you, I'm kind of tired of a lot of the boxes people have made for Ashbery. He presents a much more inclusive poem than definitions of his work usually admit. I liked the idea of jazz as a metaphor, as the theme / improvisation format (loosely!) keeps a window open for whatever the day presents.

But like all metaphors and parallel examples, it leaves out at least as much as it allows.


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