I've thought for years that the best way to read John Ashbery's poetry is to first throw the instruction manual away and then go for a fishing trip in his various lakes of opaque meanings. Literally, imagine yourself in a boat in the center of a large body of water and cast a line into the water, and then reel in what pulls and makes the line go taut. Whatever comes up is always a surprise, unexpected, perhaps a tangle of things that wouldn't be bound together or linked in any conceivable but in the dreamy but sleepless realm of Ashbery's actively processing mind and attendant imagination. This might be the closest an American writer has ever come to transcribing the language of their thought process; for all the conventional wisdom about Ashbery's associations with painters, French surrealists, and the rush of popular culture, he very closely resembles the method of Virginia Woolf and the still engaging, if the topically staid process of stream-of-conscious.Ashbery's poems are filled with much of the material world, both natural and manufactured, fashioned, contrived, and constructed by human agency. In both Woolf and Ashbery, the central voice, the observer, distanced or not, renders an image, makes it solid and substances, gives it attributes and distinguishing nuance, allows the thing to be played with as the mind associates, puns, constructs parallel universes and contradictory timelines; sections of books, a cold cup of coffee on the magazine, a painting under a cloth, shorelines are seen from Italian villas, comic book heroes and the breathing of a grudgingly referred to "you" who is voiceless, without input. I was aware that Ashbery was an adherent of Wallace Stevens and his notion of the Supreme Fiction, a reconfiguration of the tension between Idea and physical expression to the senses. But where Stevens constructed grand rhetoric to address the generic formulations of every day--his poems often sound like critiques of a reality that is inferior to a divine Idea that makes their formation possible--Ashbery makes more informal, casual, and brings the distanced bewilderment to street level. There are glimmers, glimpses, observations, and sightings of the physical detail that assure you that you and Ashbery live on the same planet. Yet, at precisely the moment you come to a reassurance, these details blur and merge with the spillover of many other chats and conversations the poet seems to be having. The poems are not monologues, and one cannot call them a "medley of voices," as Richard Poirier had referred to in Norman Mailer's Why Are We In Viet Nam?. "Medley" implies an orchestration of unlike parts made to harmonize, to make sense in ways that give pleasure. Ashbery's voice is singular, his own, and what comes from his typewriter are whatever arguments, debates, interrogations are rumbling through his consciousness at that given moment. While Ashbery is capable of the well-turned sentence and even sweet music on occasion, his aim isn't to give pleasure but rather to make the ordinary and nettlesome extraordinarily weird. It's not that his poems are any more accessible than Stevens--his less daunting syntax actually seem to make his poetry more demanding than Stevens'-- but with patience, we can comprehend a language we might actually use, a voice that could plausibly be one we would have in those moments of lost thought, daydreaming, vague yet intense yearning when there is so much we want to bring together for a moment of clarity but are frustrated to find that our senses keep changing along with the world they behold. Ashbery is the central poet for many critics whose projects intend to lay out the rise of urban Modernism in American verse. Marjorie Perloff is someone else worth mentioning as much of who she deals with are city poets, worldly, college-educated, unashamedly bookish, and unafraid to employ a more vulgar popular culture, IE comic books, movies, advertising, along with the more swank and sophisticated allusions to high culture, whether literature, opera, theatre, painting. A connecting thread through much of the poets emerging after WW2 was their ambivalence to the plenitude of culture and media--Dwight McDonald's derided mass culture--and began, in their individual endeavors, to fashion particular styles to sift through the cultural dumping ground each of them was witnessing.
Elizabeth Bishop is exquisitely hermetic in her verse. She is much closer to the qualities Stevens praised for poetic surfaces calling their own form into question, and James Merrill, who was something of a virtuoso in sustained, whispering elusiveness. One sees why some of the poets of the New York School receive more attention from readers and critics, especially the work of Ashbery and Frank O'Hara (and to a lesser degree, the wonderfully digressive poems of Ron Padgett); meanings and intents about the growling contradictory messages of physical reality are dealt with as unresolvable conditions of existence in work, but the point is how the poet is engaged with their world. It might be said that Ashbery's work makes no sense and conveys a sense of witness to an ever-blooming enlargement of perception. The poetry of the New York School was, in essence, about talking about the world as it unfolded, an attempt to give a cadence and rhythm to the kind of personality which bears witness to the confluence of sight, sound, and smells. This is a fitting rite for a city that is in your face, traffic lights, pedestrian density, and raw-lettered advertising, the moment you step out the door of your apartment building; everything is seemingly noticed, nothing is trivial, everything is a part of the story. Sheer meaning, hard and fast, is not be found here, but feeling, resonance, introspection are. It is this several layered ambiguities that keep a reader up at night, staring out of the window, testing the keyboard as ideas about what we haven't thought about coming in phrases even God himself couldn't explain. O'Hara is not so oblique or confusing--he is popular precisely because he has the lyric capacity to merge his far-flung loves of high and low culture and still carry on a rant that achieves a jazzy spontaneity--he is the poet from whom Billy Collins has taken from and tamed for polite company. Ashbery is the stroller, the walker in the city, the flaneur, the sidewalk engineer examining the city in its constant self-construction, composing poetry of association that accompanies a terrain of things with inexplicable uses. What seems like a mighty muddle in his writing becomes full engagement of a personality in love with what the senses bring him; at his best, the intelligence of the poems is transcendent, and there is, in the main, a tangible joy in how he phrases his reactions, responses, and retorts to a world that always seems to baffle him in some wondrous way.