Language In Play:
A Brief Look at the Life and Work of John Ashbery
“No figure looms so large in American poetry over the past 50 years as John Ashbery“
Poetry is divisive in the purest sense of the word! And Pulitzer-Prize, National Book Award winning American poet, the now 87-year-old John Ashbery, has been scribing verse that is as utterly polarizing as it gets for well over half a century. While Ashbery himself, a friendly enough looking now white-haired New Yorker, maintains that he only aims to tease readers “affectionately,” and the last thing he wants to do is “alienate and hurt” them (Paris Review), I must concede that at times during my readings not only did I feel both alienated and hurt, but also that John was asking me to leave, like he was saying
“You’re too stupid for this. Be off with you. Go before the Television where you belong, pleb!”
“Intruder Alert! Intruder Alert!”
This is not at all to say though that I dislike his poetry, on the contrary in fact—
I love and revel in it. It makes me think about the nature of ideas: Where do they come from? I wonder. Also I found that, in certain settings, miscommunication can be absolutely beautiful in that it has the ability to prompt a broad, peculiar sort of reflection, and to construct new, dissenting avenues of thought.
Ashbery’s finest works are astoundingly adroit monuments of language that often run upwards of twenty pages, absolutely worthy of their length. To atomize one of Ashbery’s “Byzantine monologues” word for precious word is exasperating to say the least, having once stated that one of his goals in writing is to “Produce a poem that the critic cannot even talk about.” His mastery best on display in his 1973 collection Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror, from which I’ve selected excerpts from three poems in hopes not only to give you, dubious as it may wind up, an explanation of the work, but also to see if I can reach a deeper, less tousled understanding of some of Ashbery’s grander ideas through writing. . .
From “De Imagine Mundie”
The many as noticed by the one:
The noticed one, confusing itself with the many
Yet perceives itself as an individual
Traveling between two fixed points.
Right away the speaker, who in every Poem I’ve read by John Ashbery, resonates with me as him (that is not to say all of his poetry is autobiographical, but that it is cerebral, and acutely self-conscious to an extent that it is impossible for me to imagine anyone but John himself clutching papers muttering his wry observations to himself; this image, however, lives well below the surface of the poem.), these lines denote the loneliness of the individual—any individual—and not the soupy, overdramatized sort of loneliness we see on TV, but the real, less-discussed sort: We’re born alone, we die alone. “Two-Fixed Points.”Ashbery’s canny knack to confound, his ability to turn you back in on yourself, behind your eyes to the curtilage of your mind, are part of what make his work – for me – so rewarding to read. I think it is that I crave to be pushed into myself. Ashbery does that.
From ‘The One Thing That Can Save America”
I know that I braid too much my own
Snapped-off perceptions of things as they come to me.
They are private and always will be.
Where then are the private turns of event
Destined to bloom later like golden chimes
Released over a city from a highest tower?
The quirky things that happen to me, and I tell you,
And you instantly know what I mean?
What remote orchard reached by winding roads
Hides them? Where are these roots?
It is the lumps and trials
That tell us we shall be known
And whether our fate can be exemplary, like a star.
Ashbery’s hyper self-awareness, here again, bleeds into the fabric of his
work. This stanza—ripe with similes, imagery, and a hyperbole for good measure—is a poetic telling of someone amidst an existential crisis, someone yearning for purpose,but doubting it will ever come. The speaker, again to me old Ashbery himself, asserts the adversities one faces in life are integral in crafting one’s legacy. There is an intimacy, a demure vulnerability pulsing throughout these words that give blood and bring alive the verse without allowing it to bleed decadent sentimentality: a fault I’ve perceived in a lot of contemporary poetry. The more I mine Ashbery’s words for insight, the less confident I seem to become in my readings, the more I want to edit and omit my perceptions – which is profound in that, in a sense, I become during my readings the poet and Ashbery the reader. I hope that makes at least some sense to you, patient reader, as it barely does to me. In short, what I think I mean is this: Ashbery does not write exclusively to make impressions, but also to allow impressions to be made by readers. There’s a certainhumility to Ashbery’s genius that is endearing even if it is extremely trying to faintly grasp, much less fully understand. The impromptu inclusion of this excerpt from a poem entitled “Valentine” from the collection Houseboat Days, may help to elucidate what I’m trying to get at, though it may just confuse us further, you and I, fateful reader:
These things I write for you and you only.
Do not judge them too harshly. Temper the wind,
As he was saying. They are infant things
That may grow up to be children, perhaps—who knows?—
Even adults some day, but now they exist only in the blindness
Of your love for me and are the proof of it.
You can’t think about them too long
Without knocking them over.
Reading and writing both are solitary initiatives, and both arguably are neglected by and large by our society. Why is it then we choose to ignore ourselves with such veracity? What has spurred such discordance between the individual and himself? Something dire has been injected into our Culture, leaving unsaturated the collective moxie of individuals who now stake their faith in lust and desire for something so unreal it has to be manufactured, commoditized, advertised and distributed to make sense. Where we used to create our own identities, we now buy them.
From “Self-Portrait On a Convex Mirror”
your eyes proclaim
That everything is surface. The surface is what’s there
And nothing can exist except what’s there.
My Mom has told me that many times as a small child I would ask her “What’s beneath what we see?” and that sometimes I would claim to have “torn” through the air. Precocious little Meta-physicist I was! Yeah, right. Anyway, sometimes this question comes back to me, for whatever reason, and I’ll be damned if I don’t still believe it a good question! It came back hot into my mind upon reading those first three lines. Ashbery’s sense of wonder is part of what makes his work so compelling. And just in case you’re wondering how my Mom would answer that question, it’d always be “water,” which I now find to be an oddly fitting, and consoling answer. I would always argue you that it was “all-black,” or “darkness” or some strangling notion of the like.
Perhaps it is poetry’s duty to say that which is better left unsaid—to extract profundity from the inexplicable—and though poetry does not necessarily defy reason and logic, it does, I believe, have the ability to invent new reason, new logic. Then again, perhaps poetry is dutiless; what with television and all the other immediately “entertaining” devises that ween our culture at large—that dominate us. This immediacy terrifies me. Reading Ashbery gives me a sense—false or not, I don’t know, and frankly it doesn’t matter, falsity and authenticity being only ideas—of reprieve from this world that fetishizes transitory pleasures. We’d be much richer, I think, if we invested in supplying poetry the momentum it needs to become the cultural force it is capable of being. Anyway, keep reading, and Godspeed