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"It's not what you think": Remembering John Ashbery (1927-2017)

As our new century has grown ever more peculiar and unpredictable, there has been something strangely reassuring about the arrival of a new book of poems by that impish treasure of American letters, John Ashbery. Ashbery didn’t quite publish a book every year in his final quarter century, but the past score have seen some 13 surface, a rate of productivity that would have made Paul Verlaine blush. Which would be great if – as we expect of our most celebrated 'experimental' poets – the abstract wordsmith were breaking new ground. But if the past couple of decades of reading Ashbery confirmed one thing, it’s that the late great man settled into a style so impressively self-parodic he almost looked like one of his legion of poetic imitators. Just as global warming becomes ever more physically manifest and unignorable, the creeping sense that, towards the end of his life, Ashbery was knocking out complete nonsense and passing it off as poetry simply because he could, is a concern we can’t deny, however much we might want to.

Yet, whatever your opinion of Ashbery’s work, it’s hard to argue with Stephen Burt’s claim that he will remain a hugely significant American poet, comparable in some ways to Old Possum himself. Like T. S. Eliot, to some he has proven a fecund source of near slavish inspiration; to just as many, a bête noire of obscurantism and wilful meaninglessness, as if the emperor weren’t even pretending to wear clothes. For the devout and detractors alike, the mythology has long been in place. It began with almost instant fame after W. H. Auden judged Some Trees (1956) winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize, before the old master later confessed he hadn’t understood a word of the manuscript; led to the multi-award-winning ars poetica Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1977), a brilliantly meandering narrative pointing up Ashbery’s obsession with creative self-reflexion, and abiding interest in both visual art and pop culture; and ends with the refinement and eventual plateauing of that style, into an apparent means of refracting the babble and chaos of our times. 

If Ashbery can seem rather baldly mimetic – Robert Frost famously saw poetry as a momentary stay against confusion, rather than an opportunity to hold up a broken mirror to a broken world – to his credit, he has at least confessed to being as puzzled by his work as the rest of us. “I’m kind of sorry that I cause so much grief”, he once winked in an interview. Imagine that regret being tweeted, and you can almost see the hashtag #sorrynotsorry tacked onto the end. What really separates Ashbery from his repetitively ‘experimental’ peers and acolytes is his sense of humour. There has always been a cartoonish quality to his work, daring us to take him seriously at our peril, dangling poetry’s promises of truth and meaning in front of us, before snatching them away and dropping an Acme anvil in their wake. “Th- th- th- that’s all folks!” his poems often seem to manically announce, half-knowing we’ll be back for more of the brightly-coloured same. Perhaps some readers return to him because of the unlikely magnitude of his ongoing achievement. After all, it’s a feat to have written so much poetry that refuses memorability, meaning, conventional sense, even the pursuit of something resembling truth – in short, that refuses to be poetry as we know it. The stamina alone is commendable.

Commotion of the Birds, his final non-posthumous collection, arrives with a blurb that describes Ashbery as having written “more than twenty-six original books”, suggesting that even his publishers have lost count. It opens with the title poem, which is perhaps the book’s best, demonstrating as it does a playful, interrogative send-up of modernity and the laughable notion of progress. “We’re moving right along through the seventeenth century”, the narrator quips with typically deadpan humour: “The latter part is fine, much more modern / than the earlier part.” Then we get about as close as Ashbery comes to meditative thought:

Often it’s a question of seeming rather than being modern.
Seeming is almost as good as being, sometimes,
and occasionally just as good. Whether it can ever be better
is a question best left to philosophers
and others of their ilk, who know things
in a way others cannot, even though the things
are often almost the same as the things we know.

While this might seem unusual – it is one of only a few poems in the book that makes linear sense as a narrative argument – it is also fairly typical. Critics often like to compare Ashbery’s poetry to the visual art of the abstract expressionists, usually on account of his non-representational bent. But this misses a fairly major distinction, between the high seriousness of that art movement and Ashbery’s modus operandi of keeping seriousness in constant check, goofing around the minute you suspect a poem has even a whiff of conviction or sincerity. In gently accusing philosophers of a superior brand of knowledge, Ashbery isn’t even playing at being ‘some ordinary guy’, despite that collective first-person plural. How could he, when such poems are most keenly read by those who are – as the old phrase goes – too clever by half? It isn’t long before Commotion of the Birds settles into an all-too-familiar brand of Ashberyesque:

His aunt was accepted.
How cool is that?

A new desire,
plainer than I can doubt
lightens the cities of the plain.

All is effulgent, sawtooth fronds,
veiled undertones.
Then the question remains: What is it?

Leaving his shorts behind, he
hastened to rejoin the marchers up ahead –
a peanut pastime, pleats, tucks, and panels,
unreinforced paint thinner.

So turn this off.

Poetry is often difficult because it wrenches language into new shapes; it wants to achieve the impossible, attempting to find words for the ineffable. Sometimes, in great poems, it manages to – breathlessly, brilliantly, unforgettably. But you can’t help but read many of Ashbery’s lines and despair at their wilful difficulty; admirers of his work will even cite it as a quality in and of itself, which does no-one any favours. I half fancy his select band of continually avid readers must either be academics who don’t much trouble to complicate literature with pleasure, or else those who genuinely relish the opportunity to tantalise their minds – and, dare I say it, hearts – with the poetic equivalent of an unsolvable Rubik’s cube.

The misconception of poetry as an infuriating puzzle – as if the author had deliberately withheld information to make life hard for us, rather than trying to approach a particular kind of clarity in writing about a thought, idea or emotion of exceptional complexity – is of course what leaves the genre so widely ignored among many intelligent readers. This isn’t quite Ashbery’s intention, but he makes you feel like it is, and then when you realise yet again the poem is another pomo joke at the expense of our naïve search for meaning or truth, you want to throw the damn thing in the corner, rather than applaud the umpteenth time he has flagged up the fundamental emptiness at the core of the consumer capitalist experience in precisely the same way. Take the opening two stanzas of ‘Cartoon Music’:

Why would she have said that,
an undeserving egg, not to die for?
Rainbow pencils retracted.
Next, a group of officials withdrew support
of accident forgiveness, and I’m like
Comrade Fuzzy, my gaydar’s
gone berserk the way it messes.

Or say the response is tepid,
or buttered ramekins. Color me brain foolish,
on eye-drops – the history of his hounding. There,
it’s not creepy, but it is.

There are some typical Ashbery touches to admire here: the conversational provisionality; the deliciously authentic use of slang; that shoulder-shrugging ennui that gives his late work its elegiac note. But reading this poem is also typical of reading almost any poem in the book: you feel like you’re watching back-to-back cartoons in the early hours, alone, having smoked a considerable quantity of potent marijuana, i.e. kind of fun and zany at first, but very soon a senseless visual loop of slightly nightmarish yet remarkably dull qualities. “In these situations / I’m trying to figure out what is going on”, confesses the speaker in ‘Sitting at the Table’; so were we all, before we’d been led up the garden path one too many times. “Intelligence without understanding / is like constant frost”, ‘The Upright Piano’ tells us. Indeed. But hell would likely have frozen over before John Ashbery decided to offer his readers poems that provoke understanding, aside their obvious smarts. In the end, we must continue to read his poems like ice-skaters gliding across a strange and permanently frozen lake: wondering what it would have been to marvel at some depth or substance beneath, had it ever thawed.

 review by Ben Wilkinson