John Ashbery, America's greatest, most singular, and most entrancingly elusive poet, has passed away today, age 90. The glory of Ashbery was that he didn't seem to care whether others found his poems attractive or not and cared not a whit for what dubious critics and other species of know-it-alls who habitually found fault with his confounding mixture of lyric diction and confounding segues, abrupt transitions, zany intrusions of cartoons movie lore and sports weaving there way through hermetic anecdotes, sudden confessions, astute observation, quick-witted jabs and softly emerging tones of melancholy and a need to fill the emptiness with talk, ideas, beautiful ideas, things, beautiful art, and beautiful people who could shoulder the burdens of the world preferred a harsher, more blunt way of unfolding. He was content with how he wrote and was puzzled why many readers were bewildered by the non-sequitur surface of his poems. He drew pleasure from the writing of the lyrics. He felt readers ought to derive pleasure from reading something interesting, provoking, poking one's own memories into their own cascading and overlaying associations, the material and the abstract contemplated at one instant.
His task, his project, was less the hidebound and starchy resolve to make sense of the world, to convene a narrative where every bit of happenstance and coincidence falls prey to a divine hand moving the worldly pieces around a cosmic chessboard, but instead developing a sense of the world as it happens, as it has happened, accepting celebrations and mistakes, youthful and elan and the aches of aging as matters to be marveled at and no more minor a part of one's definitive biography in this existence than the names we are given us when we are born. Discussing Avant gard art in an essay, Ashbery gave us a quote I find wonderfully wise and innocent even though it's meant to unfasten the grip of arthritic thinking from our habitual ways of thinking about how artists should deal with the fleeting phenomena of life itself. Behave and feel as if there is no certainty to any proposition regarding the metaphysical structure of the seen world: "We would all believe in God if we knew He existed, but would this be much fun?" Ashbery wrote believing that how he wrote mattered and that it would change the way this life is regarded, but never without the lurking suspicion that his true kingdom might well be the fool's paradise. That is what made his poetry, unfathomable though it may seem when wading into its currents, a sustained joy to read. This paragraph follows bits of other pieces on Ashbery I've published before, revisited my best words for a great artist.____________________________________________________________
It comes down to whether you appreciate the conflations Ashbery artfully manages as he penetrates the psychic membrane between Steven's Supreme Fiction, that perfect of Ideal Types and their arrangements, with the material sphere that won't follow expectation, nor take direction. I happen to think that much of the interstices he investigates are results of artful wandering; Ashbery is a flaneur of his own musings, and the Proustian inspection provides their idiosyncratic, insular joys. Had I thought Ashbery over rated and a bore, I'd have turned my back on critical praise of him and left him cold; I have a habit of keeping my own consul regarding reading preferences, as I'm sure all of us do. But continue to read him I do, over several decades.
Not a rebel, not a polemicist, hardly a rabble -rouser who makes speeches and writes incendiary essays against injustice, Ashbery is an aesthete, a contemplator, an intelligence of infinite patience exploring the spaces between what consciousness sees, the language it develops to register and comprehend experience, and the restlessness of memory stirred and released into streaming associations. Ashbery's are hard to "get" in the sense that one understands a note to get milk at the store or a cop's command to keep one's hand above their head, in plain site. Ashbery's poems have everything the eye can put a shape to in plain site, clouded, however, by thoughts, the cloud bank of memory. He wrestles with the still-engaging problems of Aristotle's metaphysics, that the things in the world are only the expression of an Idea of that thing, which exists prior to manifestation. It's a slippery metaphysics, a guarantor of headaches, but Ashbery wears the problem loosely; he pokes, prods, wonders, defers judgment, and is enthralled by the process of his wondering. Reaching a conclusion for him seems to mean that he is done writing, and no poet wants to think that they've used up their vocabulary.One might think that the mtvU audience might be more attracted to arch romantic and decidedly urban poet Frank O'Hara, whose emphatic musings and extrapolations had equal parts rage and incontestable joy which gave a smile or a snarl to his frequent spells of didactic erudition. He was in love with popular culture, with advertising, movies, the movies, he had an appreciation of modern art, he loved jazz and ballads, and he loved being a City Poet.
He was more the walker than Ashbery, I suppose, or at least he wrote more about the going to and coming from of his strolls. unlike Ashbery, O'Hara loved being an obvious tourist in his own environment, and didn't want for a minute for his poetry to leave the streets, cafes and galleries where he treads. Ashbery is more the stroller who gets lost in his associations triggered by what he beheld. Ever more the aesthete than his fellow New York Poets, he was interested in things a little more metaphysical, that being that the reality that exists in the inter-relations being the act of perception and the thoughts that are linked to it, which branch off from the perception and link again with another set of ideas, themselves connected to material things observed and remembered. O'Hara was immediate, like the city he loved, while Ashbery allowed his senses the authority to enlarge his perception, to explore the simultaneity of sight and introspection. In a strange way, Ashbery is the more sensual of the two, willing to examine that even the sacrifice of immediate coherence. I’m not a fan of difficulty for the sake of being difficult, but I do think it unreasonable to expect poets to be always unambiguous or easily grasped.
Not every dense piece of writing is worthy by default, of course, and the burden falls on the individual talent. Ashbery's writing, for me, has sufficient allure, resonance and tangible bits of the recognizable world he sees to make the effort to maneuver through his diffuse stanzas worth the work. Poetry is the written form where ambiguity of meaning and multiplicity of possible readings thrives more than others, and the tradition is not a parsimonious use of language, but rather a deliberate expansion of what words pieced can do, what meanings they can evoke, and what sensations they can create. Prose is the form that is, by default, is required to have the discourse it carries be clear and has precise as possible. Poetry and poets are interesting because they are not addressing their experiences or their ideas as linear matters subject to the usual linguistic cause and effect; poetry is interesting because it's a form that gives the inclined writer to interrogate their perceptions in unexpected ways. The poetic styles and approaches and aesthetics one may use vary widely in relative degrees of clarity, difficulty, and tone, but the unifying element is that poetry isn't prose, and serves a purpose other than the mere message delivering that is, at heart, the basic function of competent prose composition.
A poem should not mean, but be.---Archibald MacLeish
That's what MacLeish said and that's what Ashbery holds to, which places smack in the middle of a tradition in American poetry that's been with us since the rise of Modernist practice with Pound, Eliot, and especially the esteemed Wallace Stevens. I find it puzzling that there are those who continue to harp on Ashbery's difficulty and summarily dismiss him as an enemy of "meaning"; it's hardly as if the poet is a foe of the capacity of humans to make sense of their lives through language, and that such use can furnish oneself and one's community with purpose and, perhaps, an ethical structure that would instruct and aid said community against expressing it's worst instincts. What Ashbery would opposed, if he were a polemicist (which he is isn't) is the idea that the "meaning" that language is capable of creating through writing and, in this instance, poetry, is the final destination, the last stop on the route.
Ashbery isn't interested in the hidden meanings that one might pull from a text like it were an archaeological artifact, but rather in the fluidity of perception; his poems are filled with man made things in a natural world , and it's here his power as a writer, for me, takes hold. Our homes, our cars, factories, the shape of city streets , are custom designed with purposes to help us settle and "conquer" a raw landscape, nature, who's metaphysical presence eludes our conventionally dualist approach to dealing with the world. The contradiction between our ready made distinctions and a Nature who's essence is constant change unmotivated by rhetoric comes clear. We age, we change our minds about ideas, our store of memories expands, and we cannot view the same things again the same as we had; Ashbery's is a poetry of the concrete world,solid, dense, of itself, and the consciousness taking it in, associating sights, smells, gestures, personal possessions in conflations, synthesis. Wallace Stevens imagined the Supreme Fiction and wrote of the balances the perfect shapes of the objects and attending senses in his most ecstatic work, and Ashbery effectively extended the project. The supreme fictions and the imperfect physical things that represent them commingle, inhabit the same space. The result is not the easiest of writings to parse , but what the poet is doing is less undermining the province of language to provide meaning and structure useful for both community stability and expression than it is an affirmation that the singular idea of "meaning" , often times spoken of as if such a thing were a monolith on which all communities and individual sensibilities can ride, does not quite exist. Social constructions have a stronger hand than some folks would care to examine. Examine Ashbery does, and brilliantly at that, if confoundedly so.
For me, poetry is very much the time it takes to ;unroll, the way music does..it’s not a static, contemptible thing like a painting or a piece of sculpture. – John Ashbery
Exact meanings of things, of this world we live and grow old in, changes with the introduction of both our years and new social arrangements brought on by new technologies, wars, any number of things. But the aim of Ashbery’s poems isn’t to declare that legitimate meaning cannot be had; he wants to instead to inspect the way an interaction between our thinking, our interior life, and the world external to it exists as a kind of permanently placed negotiation between our expectation and the change that comes and which is inevitable. Ashbery embraces process more than anything else, but not at the sacrifice of a meaning that makes what’s desirable and repugnant to us recognizable. He wrestles with the still-engaging problems of Platonic form, that the things in the world are only the expression of an Idea of that thing, which exists prior to manifestation. It's a slippery metaphysics, an guarantor of headaches, but Ashbery wears the problem loosely; he pokes, prods, wonders, defers judgement, and is enthralled by the process of his wondering. Reaching a conclusion for him seems to mean that he is done writing, and no poet wants to think that they've used up their vocabulary.What Poetry IsJohn AshberyThe medieval town, with friezeOf boy scouts from Nagoya? The snow That came when we wanted it to snow?Beautiful images? Trying to avoid Ideas, as in this poem? But weGo back to them as to a wife, leaving The mistress we desire? Now theyWill have to believe it As we believed it. In schoolAll the thought got combed out: What was left was like a field.Shut your eyes, and you can feel it for miles around. Now open them on a thin vertical path.It might give us--what?--some flowers soon?
This poem talks about representations of things captured at particular moments of aesthetic iteration and speaks to our expectation that things, as we actually experience them, adhere to a narrative we’ve assigned them. But where many despair at how real places, things, people stray from the fine lines that tried to get at their essential nature, Ashbery wonders and finds something remarkable . There is that “it” that we’ve been instructed to seek out, the moral, the lesson to be learned, but the poem asks us, in oblique yet alluring images, are we to give up the quest for meaning because the world is not the static place one might have assumed it was the goal of poetry to confirm? He calls it here, as close as he ever has in his career, when he writes “In school / All the thought got combed out: / What was left was like a field. “ We have been trained to quantifying the content of our experience, we have been instructed in many ways of quantifying sense perception and turning into data that, in turn, is given over to endless narrative strategies –literary, scientific, ideological, economic—that promise a lump sum of a Larger Picture. The task after that, the obligation of the poet afterwards, is to know something more about experience by gauging the fluid nature of our responses to it. Ashbery in his many good moments gets the dissolution perfectly.