(1927 - † 3-9-2017)
Famous Poets and Poems
O MANUAL DE INSTRUÇÕES
da janela do edifício,
não ter de escrever o manual de instruções sobre o uso de um novo metal.
para baixo, para a rua, e vejo as pessoas, cada uma caminhando com uma paz
invejo-as - estão tão longe de mim!
uma delas tem de se preocupar com acabar a tempo o manual.
eu sou assim, começo a sonhar, de cotovelos na secretária e inclinando-me um
pouco da janela,
uma vaga Guadalajara! Cidade de flores da cor da rosa!
que eu queria tanto ver, e não vi tanto, no México!
imagino vê-la, sob a pressão de ter de escrever o manual de instruções,
tua praça pública, cidade, com o seu pequeno coreto primoroso!
banda toca Xehrazade, de Rimski-Korsakov.
redor, as raparigas distribuem flores da cor da rosa e do limão,
todas em seus vestidos listrados azul e rosa (Oh! Que tons de azul e rosa!)
perto está a pequena barraca branca onde mulheres de verde servem frutos verdes
casais desfilam; toda a gente se dispõe à festa.
à frente do desfile, vai um sujeito garboso,
de azul forte. Traz na cabeça um chapéu branco
usa um bigode aparado de propósito para a ocasião.
mulher dele, a sua querida, é jovem e bonita, de xaile rosa e branco
chinelas de couro à moda da América;
um cheque, porque é recatada e não quer que a multidão lhe veja a cara muitas
todos eles estão ocupados com a mulher ou com a amada.
que algum reparasse na mulher do homem de bigode.
vêm os rapazes! Vêm pulando e atirando objectos para o passeio,
é feito de ladrilhos cinzentos. Um deles, um pouco mais velho, tem um palito
entre os dentes.
mais calado que os outros e finge não reparar nas raparigas vestidas de branco.
os amigos dele reparam, gritam-lhes gracejos e elas riem.
isto vai acabar em breve, com o aprofundar dos anos,
o amor os trouxer aos lugares do desfile por outros motivos.
perdi de vista o rapaz do palito.
- lá está ele - do outro lado do coreto.
dos amigos, falando, sério, com uma rapariga
catorze ou quinze anos. Tento ouvir o que dizem,
parece que só murmuram algo - tímidas palavras de amor, quem sabe.
é um pouco mais alta do que ele, e olha-o calmamente nos olhos sinceros.
está vestida de branco. A brisa agita-lhe os longos cabelos negros contra o
rosto cor de azeitona.
claro que está apaixonada. E o jovem, o rapaz do palito, também ele está
nos olhos. Deixando este par, viro-me
vejo que há um intervalo no concerto.
que tomam parte no desfile descansam e bebem por palhinhas
bebidas são servidas de um grande jarro de vidro por uma senhora vestida de
os músicos, em seus uniformes branco-creme, misturam-se com eles e conversam
o tempo, talvez, ou como os filhos vão na escola.
esta oportunidade para nos esgueirarmos até um das ruas laterais.
podem ver uma daquelas casas brancas rematadas com uma faixa verde
populares aqui. Vejam - eu bem vos disse!
está fresco e escuro, mas o pátio é soalheiro.
sentada está uma velha vestida de cinzento, abanando-se com uma folha de
no seu pátio e oferece-nos uma bebida refrescante.
meu filho está na Cidade do México!, diz ela. "Também ele havia de vos
cá estivesse. Mas está lá empregado num banco.
eis uma fotografia dele."
de uma gasta moldura de couro sorri para nós um moço de pele escura e dentes
a hospitalidade, pois faz-se tarde
antes de partirmos, temos de ir ver a vista da cidade de uma boa elevação.
foi limitada, mas, por outro lado, completa a nossa experiência de Guadalajara!
o amor jovem, o amor conjugal e o amor de uma mãe idosa pelo seu filho.
a música, provámos as bebidas e olhámos as casas coloridas.
mais há para fazer, senão ficar? Mas é isso que não podemos fazer.
quando a última brisa refresca o topo da velha torre batida pelo tempo, desvio
o meu olhar
Para o manual de instruções, que me fez sonhar com Guadalajara.
Alone with our madness and favorite flower
We see that there really is nothing left to write about
Or rather, it is necessary to write about the same old things
In the same way, repeating the same things over and over
For love to continue and be gradually different.
Beehives and ants have to be reexamined eternally
And the color of the day put in
Hundreds of times and varied from summer to winter
For it to get slowed down to the pace of an authentic
Saraband and huddle there, alive and resting.
Only then can the chronic inattention
Of our lives drape itself around us, conciliatory
And with one eye on those long tan plush shadows
That speak so deeply into our unprepared knowledge
Of ourselves, the talking engines of our day.
Sós com a nossa loucura e a flor referida,
Vemos que não há mais nada sobre que escrever.
Ou antes, é preciso escrever sobre as mesmas coisas de sempre,
Do mesmo modo, repetindo vezes sem conta as mesmas coisas,
Para que o amor continue e a pouco e pouco vá mudando.
Colmeias e formigas têm de ser eternamente reexaminadas
E a cor do dia aplicada
Centenas de vezes e variada do verão para o inverno
Para que o seu ritmo desça ao de uma autêntica
Sarabanda e ela aí se feche sobre si mesma, viva e em paz.
Só nessa altura a crónica desatenção
Das nossas vidas nos poderá envolver, conciliadora
E com um olho posto naquelas longas opulentas sombras amareladas
Que falam tão fundo para o nosso mal preparado conhecimento
De nós próprios, máquinas falantes dos nossos dias.
Just Walking Around
What name do I have for you?
Certainly there is no name for you
In the sense that the stars have names
That somehow fit them. Just walking around,
An object of curiosity to some,
But you are too preoccupied
By the secret smudge in the back of your soul
To say much, and wander around,
Smiling to yourself and others.
It gets to be kind of lonely
But at the same time off-putting,
Counterproductive, as you realize once again
That the longest way is the most efficient way,
The one that looped among islands, and
You always seemed to be traveling in a circle.
And now that the end is near
The segments of the trip swing open like an orange.
There is light in there, and mystery and food.
Come see it. Come not for me but it.
But if I am still there, grant that we may see each other.
ANDANDO POR AÍ
Que nome tenho eu para ti?
Decerto não há nome para ti
No sentido em que as estrelas têm nomes
Que de algum modo lhes servem. Andando por aí,
Um motivo de curiosidade para alguns,
Mas tu estás demasiado preocupado
Com a nódoa secreta do outro lado da tua alma
Para falar muito e vagueias por aí,
Sorrindo para ti e para os outros
Chega a ser um tanto solitário,
Contraproducente quando percebes uma vez mais
Que o caminho mais longo é o mais eficaz
Aquele que serpenteava por entre as ilhas, e
Parecia que andavas sempre em círculo.
E agora que o fim está perto
Os gomos da viagem abrem-se como uma laranja.
Lá dentro há luz, e mistério e sustento.
Anda ver. Vem, não por mim, mas por isso.
Mas se eu ainda lá estiver, concede que nos possamos encontrar.
PARADOXOS E OXIMOROS
Este poema ocupa-se da linguagem a um nível muito simples.
Olha como fala contigo! Tu olhas pela janela
Ou finges estar nervoso. Já o tens, mas não o tens.
Passas-lhe ao lado, passa-te ao lado. Passam ao lado um do outro.
O poema está triste porque quer ser teu e não consegue.
O que é um nível simples? E isso e outras coisas,
Que ele põe em jogo formando ora sistema. Jogo?
Bom, no fundo é isso, mas jogo para mim é
Uma coisa exterior mais funda, papéis assumidos em sonhos,
Como na distribuição das graças nestes longos dias de Agosto
Sem prova. Em aberto. E antes que o conheças
Ele perde-se nos vapores e no matraquear das máquinas de escrever.
O jogo foi jogado uma vez mais. Penso que sé existes
Para me desafiar a fazê-lo, ao teu nível, e depois não estás lá,
Ou assumiste outra atitude. E o poema
Deitou-me suavemente a teu lado. O poema és tu.
Ahead, starting from the far north, it wanders.
Its radish-strong gasoline fumes have probably been
Locked into your sinuses while you were away.
You will have to deliver it.
The flowers exist on the edge of breath, loose,
Having been laid there.
One gives pause to the other,
Or there will be a symmetry about their movements
Through which is also an individual.
It is their collective blankness, however,
That betrays the notion of a thing not to be destroyed.
In this, how many facts we have fallen through
And still the old façade glimmers there,
A mirage, but permanent. We must first trick the idea
Into being, then dismantle it,
Scattering the pieces on the wind,
So that the old joy, modest as cake, as wine and friendship
Will stay with us at the last, backed by the night
Whose ruse gave it our final meaning.
A morte em flor
À tua frente, vinda do longínquo norte, ela vagueia.
Os seus gases de escape, intensos como rabanetes, provavelmente ficaram
Fechados nas tuas fossas nasais enquanto estiveste fora.
Vais ter que entregá-la.
As flores existem no limite da respiração, soltas,
Uma dá lugar à outra,
Ou então os seus movimentos geram uma simetria
Através da qual cada uma delas é também ela própria.
Mas é o seu colectivo apagamento
Que denuncia a ideia de qualquer coisa indestrutível.
E nisto, quantos factos não atravessou a nossa queda!
Mas a velha fachada aí está a brilhar.
Uma miragem, mas permanente. Primeiro temos de usar um truque para trazer a ideia
À vida, e depois desmantelá-la,
Espalhando os pedaços ao vento,
Para que a velha alegria, modesta como um bolo, como vinho e amizade,
Fique connosco até ao fim, sustentada pela noite
Cuja astúcia lhe deu o nosso sentido final.
Somehow I always do manage but
You found them for me, what
I love, lakes and paintings.
night it slipped its mooring.
Sempre resolvo as coisas de algum modo mas
Foste tu que descobriste para mim aquilo
De que eu gosto, lagos e pinturas.
De noite soltaram-se as amarras,
Ao romper do dia tinham desaparecido,
Tudo o que fiz foi deixar a chaleira ferver.
A silhueta familiar
Evitou que eu pensasse nisso.
Não falta nada.
Tudo está em ordem então,
As casas claramente mais modestas,
E sempre assim por diante...
Uma vista do parque de estacionamento.
anda o não abandonaram.
Ainda podes encontrar esses prazeres algures
Em velhos estábulos. A resposta
Negativa do ouvinte não afogou
A coisa muito simples deste mundo
Que nos ensinaram a respeitar
À medida que crescíamos.
Uma vírgula no olho de Deus.
O efeito desejado.
A Mood of Quiet Beauty
horizons suddenly paved with golden stones,
the blood down, and things like that.
UMA ESPÉCIE DE BELEZA SERENA
A luz da tarde era como mel nas árvores
Quando me deixaste e caminhaste até ao fim da rua
Onde subitamente acabava o pôr-do-Sol.
A ponte levadiça bolo-de-noiva desceu
Sobre a frágil flor de miosótis.
Tu subiste para bordo.
Horizontes ardidos de súbito revestidos de pedras douradas,
Sonhos que eu tive, alguns com suicídios,
Enchem agora o balão de ar quente.
Está a rebentar, vai rebentar não tarda,
Com qualquer coisa invisível
Sé durante os dias.
Nós ouvimos, e por vezes aprendemos,
E fazemos descer o sangue, e outras coisas assim.
Foi então que os museus se tornaram generosos, vivem na nossa respiração.
Life as a Book That Has Been Put Down
We have erased each letter
But the juice thereof is bitter,
A VIDA COMO UM LIVRO QUE SE FECHOU
Apagámos todas as letras
E a afirmação mantêm-se vagamente,
Como uma inscrição sobre a porta de um banco,
Com números romanos difíceis de decifrar,
E que, a sua maneira, talvez digam de mais
Não estávamos a ser surrealistas? E porque é que
No bar estranhos observavam o teu cabelo
E as tuas unhas, como se o corpo
Não procurasse e encontrasse a posição mais confortável,
E a tua cabeça, essa coisa estranha,
Não ficasse cada vez mais problemática de cada vez que alguém fechava a porta?
Falámos um com o outro,
Levámos cada coisa só até onde podíamos,
Mas na ordem certa, e assim ela é música,
Ou qualquer coisa como música falando da distancia.
Temos apenas algum saber
E mais que a ambição necessária
Para o transformar num fruto feito de nuvem
Que nos protegerá até desaparecer.
Mas o seu somo é amargo,
Não temos disso nos nossos jardins,
E tu devias subir até onde mora o saber
Como esse sarcasmo desprendido, para aí alguém
Te dizer de vez: não está aqui.
Só fica o fumo,
E o silêncio, e a velhice
Que fomos construindo como uma passagem,
De alguma maneira, e a paz que bate todos os recordes,
E o cantar no campo, um prazer
Que há-de vir e não nos conhece.
Traduções para Português: Uma onda e outros poemas. John Ashbery; tradução colectiva (a) (Mateus, Junho 1991), revista, completada e apresentada por João Barrento com a colaboração de Richard Zenith. Quetzal, Lisboa, 1992.
Antonio Franco Alexandre
Antonio Manuel Pires Cabral
Maria de Lourdes Guimarães
João Miguel Fernandes Jorge
Jorge Fazenda Lourenço
Joaquim Manuel Magalhães
José Blanc de Portugal
João Rui de Sousa
The TLS n.º 5254, de 12-12-2003
Two Million Violators
Like a hair falling on sand
the return address is emptiness
whichever way that leads us,
makes us happen.
Stars shift in their sockets.
God patrols the bottom of the sea,
lifts the doric snails
to fire-escape level.
Sees us coming
and turns a corner.
Pasteboard men idle in their shops
past the gliding hour,
serve us tea and sherbets
conniving in the small back room.
We have filled those orders
over and over, it says,
exported our waste
to the furthest reaches of the empire.
Still no ermine slope
nor eyrie for the mind.
Distressed stone terraces contain
all the abatement.
The TLS n.º 5410 December 8, 2006
Are You Ticklish?
We’re leaving again of our own volition
for bogus-patterned plains, shreds of maps recurring
like waves on a beach, each unimaginable
and likely to go on being so.
But sometimes they get, you know, confused
and change their vows on the ground rules
that sustain all of us. It’s cheery, then, to reflect on the past
and what it brought us. To take some books down
from the shelf. It is good, in fact,
to let the present pass without commentary
for what it says about the future.
There was nothing carnal in the way omens became portents.
Fact: all me appetites are friendly. I just
don’t want to live according to the next guy trespass,
meanwhile getting a few beefs off my chest,
if that’s OK. The wraparound flux we intuit
as time has other claims on our inventiveness.
A lot of retail figures in it. One’s daily horoscope
comes in eggshell, eggplant, and, just for the heck of it,
black. ‘Nuf said. The deal is off. The rest is silence.
WHERE SHALL I
By John Ashbery.
81 pp. HarperCollins Publishers. $22.95.
By John Ashbery.
Edited by Eugene Richie.
326 pp. University of Michigan Press. $29.95.
John Ashbery is our great poet of the interior landscape -- all the bric-a-brac we carry around in the attic of our minds: imagery, quotations, movie dialogue, advertising jingles, song lyrics, snatches of overheard conversation. He's like Daffy Duck, if that's who the speaker is, in the poem ''Daffy Duck in Hollywood'':
Something strange is creeping across me.
La Celestina has only to warble the first few bars
Of 'I Thought About You' or something mellow from
Amadigi di Gaula for everything -- a mint-condition can
Of Rumford's Baking Powder, a celluloid earring, Speedy
Gonzales, the latest from Helen Topping Miller's fertile
Escritoire, a sheaf of suggestive pix on greige, deckle-edged
Stock -- to come clattering through.
Ashbery has been curating and rearranging this material for so long now -- since 1953, when his first book, ''Turandot and Other Poems,'' came out -- that, almost without our noticing, he himself has become a part of our mental furniture. Once thought to be willfully ''difficult'' and impenetrably obscure, Ashbery now, at 77, seems almost avuncular, the grand old man of American poetry, both wise and ironic -- the party guest he describes in one of his new poems, who is ''bent on mischief and good works with equal zest.'' We may not know much Ashbery by heart, but we recognize his voice the instant we hear it, because nobody else writes this way:
Attention, shoppers. From within
commas of a strambotto, seditious
watermarks this time of day. Time to get
and, as they say, about.
Ashbery has written more than 20 books -- most of them of consistently high quality, with the exception of the tedious ''Flow Chart'' -- and he has been around so long, reinventing himself over and over again, that the experience of reading him now is a little like re-enacting the central drama of most Ashbery poems: the experience of suddenly coming upon something that is both deeply familiar and more than a little strange.
The publication of Ashbery's ''Selected Prose'' -- reviews, essays and occasional pieces written over the last 50 years -- is a reminder that from the beginning he set out to be different and not too easily understood. ''A poem that communicates something that's already known to a reader is not really communicating anything,'' he said once, and he was referring not just to content but to voice and tone. As a young writer, he consciously broke with the reigning poetic style of his time -- that of Robert Lowell and the ''confessional'' poets. More than that of any other American poet except Stevens, his early aesthetic was anchored in Paris (where he lived for 10 years), in surrealism and in the work of French experimental writers like Michel Butor and Raymond Roussel.
In the early essays especially, there's a contrarian impulse; the young Ashbery practically brags about how much he loves the kind of writing that at first or even second glance doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Ashbery was also greatly influenced by painters like de Kooning, Pollock and Jasper Johns, and it's meant to be high praise, for example, when he talks about Johns's ''organized chaos'' and ''arbitrary order,'' and how his painting ''seems to defy critical analysis.'' His own work strove for just that kind of artful abandon. Some of the poems from his 1962 collection, ''The Tennis Court Oath,'' were so dense and allusive, and so full of wild leaps and jarring discontinuities, that they should have come with a surgeon general's warning. Reading them gave you a headache.
But for all its complexity, Ashbery's poetic practice has often had a slangy, homespun quality, and over the years his idiom has come to feel more and more comfortable and familiar. No longer the dadaist enfant terrible, he has lightened up a little, and through sheer longevity and productivity he has taught us how to read him. ''I wanted to stretch the bond between language and communication but not to sever it,'' he said in 1995. Meanwhile, he has been outflanked on the difficulty scale by the Language Poets, for example (many of whom truly are incomprehensible), and even by Jorie Graham, next to whom he is a piece of cake. Ashbery's new book, ''Where Shall I Wander,'' is actually sort of mellow, the work of an aging poet who appears to have resigned himself to being, as he once said of his friend Frank O'Hara, ''too hip for the squares and too square for the hips.''
This is a less exuberant volume than, say, ''Your Name Here,'' which appeared in 2000. A number of poems begin not with his characteristic sense of adventure, of starting out fresh, but with a feeling of what one of them calls being in ''mid-parenthesis.'' There's often a vague feeling of loss or belatedness or impinging mortality -- an awareness that ''like all good things / life tends to go too long'' -- or else a sense of opportunity missed, choices not made. These poems tend to resolve themselves, though, not in mourning or in elegy but with a matter-of-fact resignation, as here at the end of a poem called ''More Feedback'':
There's no turning back the man
the one waiting to take tickets at the top
of the gangplank. Still, in the past
we could always wait a little. Indeed,
we are waiting now. That's what happens.
Or here, at the end of ''A Visit to the House of Fools'':
A ruler is pasted against the wall
to tell time by, but it's too late. The snow's
knack for seeking out and penetrating
has finally become major news.
Let's drink to that,
and the tenacity of just seeming.
Other poems involve a hint of crisis, a premonition of some loss or disaster. The very first poem in the book, for example, ''Ignorance of the Law Is No Excuse,'' begins:
We were warned about spiders, and
We drove downtown to see our neighbors.
None of them were home.
And elsewhere, there are midnight forests, unlit fires, whistling winds, ebbing tides, skies ''cold and gray'' -- the whole romantic landscape seen in the flat, almost clinical light of hindsight. But the response is practical and accommodating, a recognition that things aren't as bad as they might have been; instead of full-fledged disaster there's just erosion and disappointment:
All hell didn't break loose, it was
materializing like snow on an unseen
All that was underfoot was good, but lost.
Sometimes the poems even end on a note of pleasure and gratitude for whatever small happiness has been allotted and a gentle admonition against expecting too much:
A certain satisfaction
has been granted us. Sure, we keep coming
for more -- that's part of the 'human'
of the parade. And there are darker
penciled in, that we should explore
For now, it's enough that this day is over.
It brought its load of freshness, dropped it
and left. As for us, we're still here, aren't
Nothing about ''Where Shall I Wander'' is cheerful, exactly. The jacket painting, by Caspar David Friedrich, is of a gloomy sunset over a field streaked with puddles. But the book isn't really melancholy either; the question posed by the title isn't so much urgent as idle and meditative. The younger Ashbery, the poet of ''Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,'' was in fact much more death-haunted than this later one, who in place of the great, chilling clarifications, the glimpses into sublimity provided by such poets of old and middle age as Hardy, Larkin and Yeats (who is invoked here more than once), offers what amounts to a kind of humble, almost folksy stoicism: Things could be worse, be grateful for what you have -- or at least had.
This is a muted, middle-register message and it makes at times for a muted, middle-register book. There are no clunkers here of the sort that used to turn up occasionally in Ashbery collections, but there is also not a single poem that is really large or overwhelming. The pleasure is in the little jokes and surprises (some of them literary, some of them slapstick), and in watching an old hand so effortlessly work so many tiny but elegant variations on familiar music. ''It's not as easy as it looks,'' he says in ''Sonnet: More of Same.'' ''Try to avoid the pattern that has been avoided, / the avoidance pattern. . . . It's like practicing a scale: at once different and never the same. / Ask not why we do these things. Ask why we find them meaningful.''
For variety he also includes several prose poems, including the long title piece. At least since ''Three Poems,'' which were in fact three long prose pieces -- a flood of sprawling, unparagraphed sentences -- Ashbery has been overly fond of this dandified, hybrid form so beloved by Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Gertrude Stein, among others he has acknowledged as influences. But the prose poem doesn't bring out the best in him (or in anybody else for that matter, except for poets like Charles Simic and Michael Benedikt, who treat the whole notion with a certain amount of irony). The long sentences, loose and rambling, let all the music leak out, and they often feel arbitrary, made up on the spot:
Smack in the limousine, the friendly fog next door placed a hand on my shoulders, cementing matters. The professor looked wary. 'Flowers have helped pave roads,' he mooted. The ocean filling in for us. Too many vacant noon empires, without them you can't rule a hemisphere or be sated other than by watching. Our TV brains sit around us all brave and friendly, like docile pets.
This isn't poetry; it's -- well, prose, and not particularly interesting prose at that.
On the evidence of ''Selected Prose,'' in fact, it's tempting to conclude that prose is something Ashbery isn't especially good at, which makes him unusual among poets of his stature. Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott, to take the two most obvious examples, are brilliant critics and essayists, with prose voices as original and as pleasing as their poetic ones. Ashbery's prose writing is clear and competent (he worked as a journalist and art critic for many years) but also dutiful and uninspired. Most of the pieces in this volume are the equivalent of literary chores -- reviews, introductions and the like -- and from them you get no sense of how much fun Ashbery can be or what a master of tone and voices he is, able to shift gears in a single line. Most of ''Selected Prose'' is written in an all-purpose monotone.
Now that he has backed away a little from the grand manner of his earlier books, it has become clearer that Ashbery's great gift is for the burnishing of ordinary language, for the redeployment of slang and cliché in ways that render the prosaic more poetic. The writing of verse somehow releases him into limberness and playfulness and openness -- a happy state that is itself the subject of some of his best poems, and the opposite of what happens when he works the other way and allows poetic language to unravel dreamily into prose.
The difference is in large part one of tautness and compression -- an intensity that propels him down the page, not across it. This is the Ashbery who now seems so much a part of our mental landscape -- the one who at times seems almost aphoristic in his compactness and precision. And for some of his readers at least, the only worrisome thing about this book, otherwise so wise and so assured, will be the title and the title poem, with their suggestion that the poet may now, near the end of his career, be drawn more to wandering than to getting anywhere.
Charles McGrath, the former editor of the Book Review, is a writer at large at The Times.
A farmer's son, John Ashbery learned about poetry from an encyclopedia and progressed to student magazines. Part of an avant-garde New York scene in the 50s, he left the city for Paris where he worked as an art critic. His early work was barely reviewed, but his originality and range soon won him admirers and he went on to win major prizes. His latest book is published this month
Saturday April 23, 2005
In 1976 John Ashbery made a remarkable breakthrough to mainstream audiences. His collection of poems Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror won three prestigious awards, beginning with the inaugural American National Book Critics Circle Award. As someone whose work had until then been routinely described as deliberately obscure, he was an unexpected winner. "It was a great surprise," he recalls. "Then it became common knowledge, months before the official announcement, that I was going to win the Pulitzer poetry prize as well." Between them came the National Book Award, which he did not believe he could win "because I was going to win the Pulitzer. I went to the National Book Award presentation ceremony anyway, and when my name was read out [as winner] I was caught in probably the only spontaneous photograph of me that exists. But it obviously made people think I was someone to be reckoned with."
The final section of the book's title poem is representative and if the sounds,
textures and images conjured can be alluring, it remains challenging and radical
We have seen the city; it is the gibbous
Mirrored eye of an insect. All things happen
On its balcony and are resumed within,
But the action is the cold, syrupy flow
Of a pageant. One feels too confined,
Sifting the April sunlight for clues,
In the mere stillness of the ease of its
Parameter. The hand holds no chalk
And each part of the whole falls off
And cannot know it knew, except
Here and there, in cold pockets
Of remembrance, whispers out of time.
But with his triple crown of awards Ashbery was transported from the avant-garde to the front rank of American literary life, a position he has continued to occupy for three decades. Supporters include the critic Harold Bloom, who recently identified Ashbery's As We Know (1979) as the book of poetry published in the past 25 years that has meant most to him: "He is our major poet since the death of Wallace Stevens in 1955".
In some sense it is a familiar career trajectory. The critic and poet Mark Ford has written about Ashbery and his circle and says he "did have a very slow start, but he was always conscious of how avant-garde work and avant-garde writers are often neglected early on". Bloom's advocacy was important, in Ford's view, as was the supportive group Ashbery had around him. "It's true that until he was into his 40s he didn't have much of a profile, but the people who are now known as the New York School were an important coterie who always believed in him."
The New York School, comprising Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch and James Schuyler, came together as friends in the 1940s. "For a long time we were our own, very small audience," Ashbery says. "And we had no idea that we were the New York School. The idea that people might be reading us and thinking about us in that way would have seemed very far-fetched."
He admits they had a shared artistic outlook in that they were all dissatisfied with the then poetry establishment, had a leaning towards French and other European writers and set out to be more experimental than the academic poetry of the 40s and 50s. "And we all somehow ended up in New York when the arts were in a state of high ferment and were very exciting. People like Pollock and de Kooning were changing their worlds. We knew John Cage. We wanted to approximate something similar in poetry but it seemed unlikely there would ever be an audience for what we were doing."
Ashbery's 25th volume of poetry, Where Shall I Wander, is published in the UK by Carcanet this month. The doyenne of American critics, Helen Vendler, was dismissive of his early work - "wilful flashiness" - but has subsequently come to value him more. She says the new book "is rich in grimly funny images of the dance of approaching death".
"What is to be gained by writing this way?", Vendler asks of a section of his
poem "Broken Tulips":
Another's narrative supplants the crawling
stock-market quotes: Like all good things
life tends to go on too long, and when we smile
in mute annoyance, pauses for a moment.
Rains bathe the rainbow,
and the shape of night is an empty cylinder,
focused at us, urging its noncompliance
closer along the way we chose to go.
"In answer, we need only imagine the poem done conventionally," she continues. "A first-person narrator evokes his erotic anxiety, his sense of spring, his feeling of taedium vitae, his foreboding of a failure of spring, and his fear of death. These topics are so worn one can hardly think of writing about them - and yet what else stirs feeling in our hearts? 'Make it new' - Pound's old command - is still as talismanic as ever."
But as Vendler has moved towards Ashbery, others have turned away. Alan Jenkins, deputy editor and former poetry editor of the TLS, where many of Ashbery's poems are first seen, says "Some Trees (1956) is one of my favourite poetry books. But for me he has become a bit samey. There are still some pleasures to be had, but I don't find the same sense of excitement. In those earlier books he developed a new voice and incorporated perhaps not very exciting aspects of American life that hadn't got into American poetry much before that. He suggested the weirdness and surreal oddness of American suburbia."
Professor M Wynn Thomas of the University of Wales, Swansea, identifies some factors that combined in Ashbery's dramatic elevation in the mid-70s. Apart from Bloom's advocacy, which provided academic credibility, Robert Lowell's death in 1977 prompted a search for the new great American poet and Ashbery's work was susceptible to a succession of critical theories. "Take postmodernism. Is his work a libertarian, democratic, catholic approach to the world that its champions claim? Or is it, as others say, the corrupt aesthetic of capitalist consumerism? You could argue that it is both." Thomas teaches Ashbery to undergraduates, and says their response is mixed: "Some are bemused but there are always one or two who are passionate about him and students are generally attracted to his omnivorous aesthetic. There are references to advertising which are then mixed with references to Dante and he doesn't prepare you for the shifts in tone and register and the bringing together of words from different vocabularies."
As an aesthete Ashbery is a paradoxical figure in that he seems willing to incorporate virtually everything. For many years he was an art critic and, as one friend puts it, "what he doesn't know about movies you could write on a postage stamp". He also has an extensive knowledge of music beyond the standard repertory. Leon Botstein is president of Bard College, 100 miles north of New York City, where Ashbery has taught since 1990. Botstein is also a conductor and says: "I have done lots of rare opera but it was John who put me onto Chausson's Le Roi Arthus which I went on to record. His taste and discernment is extraordinary and the breadth of interests is absolutely remarkable."
If the range of his references has left some readers baffled, and frustrated by the lack of clearly discernable meanings, Ashbery has stated that "a poem that communicates something that's already known to a reader is not really communicating anything to him, and in fact shows a lack of respect". Vendler has suggested that for Ashbery, "a change of mood is the chief principle of form... every poem is unique, recording a unique interval of consciousness", while in a review of David Herd's study John Ashbery and American Poetry (2000), Robert Potts said that the book offered "not a reading of Ashbery but a way of reading Ashbery, and a critical language more appropriate to Ashbery's peculiarities than pre-packaged approaches, which merely make Ashbery reflect their own concerns".
Ashbery and his partner of more than 30 years, David Kermani (who is also his bibliographer) oscillate between a home in Hudson, near Bard, and a Manhattan apartment. Their Hudson house was built for a 19th-century coke merchant and its careful restoration, its art, furniture and stained glass windows have been the subject of newspaper and magazine features. Kermani, speaking to a local paper a few years ago, said the house is "filled with all of the objects and collections that are, I don't want to say part of the work, but are reflected in the work. It's all the same sensibility."
Ashbery appears to have had a highly developed and sophisticated taste since childhood. He remembers reading a feature in Life Magazine about a major Dada and Surrealism show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1936 when he was only nine. "It was tremendously exciting and although I probably didn't say I wanted to be a surrealist when I grew up, it did take me in that direction. I started taking painting classes and looked at books about surrealism."
He was born in July 1927 on a farm in Rochester, upstate New York. His father, Chester, grew fruit and his mother, Helen, taught biology. His brother, Richard, three years younger than him, died aged nine of leukaemia in 1939. Ashbery says his parents were not particularity literary and his early exposure to poetry came via a 1912 edition of a children's encyclopedia which included anthology pieces from minor Victorian poets. "They were the sort of thing a child would recite to his parents in the parlour," he explains. "I always had a soft spot for them while acknowledging what they were."
The most important intellectual influence on his young life - everyone knew he was a bright child and he won a wartime radio show called Quiz Kids - was his grandfather, Henry Lawrence, a professor of physics at Rochester University with whom Ashbery lived for some time. "I was the first grandchild and he sort of took me over and gave me books. He could read Greek and had sets of Victorian novels and poetry. He was a very cultivated Victorian gentleman who had been born during the Civil War and was completely self-made. When he was a kid he had walked to school without shoes."
Ashbery attended the local primary school but then became a boarder at the exclusive Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. He was told he had won a scholarship but learned later that his fees had been paid by a wealthy neighbour whose sons attended the school. While at Deerfield a friend, unbeknownst to Ashbery, sent some of his poems to Poetry, a prestigious magazine, under a pseudonym. When they printed two of them Ashbery was caused some unexpected anxiety as he had sent the same poems to the magazine and worried they might think the was a plagiarist.
While his interests weren't exactly frowned upon - "no one really paid much attention to them at home or at school" - he has spoken about how his brother was more likely to have grown up to be the son his parents wanted. "He was interested in sports and life on the farm, and he would probably have taken it over from my father. He would probably have been straight, and married and had children, and not been the disappointment that I undoubtedly was to my parents."
Ashbery says he became aware of his sexuality when very young. "I also had crushes on girls, but that just didn't seem to happen for me. Then just before I went to college my mother discovered I was gay from finding some letters I had written to a friend. She was obviously extremely upset but she somehow blocked it out and it was never referred to again."
In 1945 he went to Harvard to read English. Robert Hunter, now retired from teaching English at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, roomed with him in their first year. "I came from a very small town in South Dakota and John was the most brilliant person I'd ever met. He was also very funny and while we were serious about literature we also spent a lot of time at the movies or drinking beer. In terms of taste he was always at least one step ahead of me, but even in this he was good fun. I remember going to see the Martha Graham dance troupe with John and we ended up getting the giggles."
Ashbery published poetry in the Harvard Advocate and eventually joined the editorial board along with Kenneth Koch, Robert Bly and Donald Hall. Hall says: "the most important thing about John, and his relationship with the other poets around Harvard, was that almost without exception we looked upon him as the best of us. Such generosities were uncommon." Hall also remembers the other editors once chiding Ashbery for not publishing in the magazine for a while and coercing him into going back to his room to get a poem. He emerged half an hour later with a poem which was published. A couple of weeks later Hall asked Ashbery whether he had gone back to his room to write it. Ashbery said he had. "Fifty years later I happened to see John in New York and I repeated that story to him and his comment was, 'I took longer then'."
Ashbery, who wrote his undergraduate dissertation on Auden, says he knew early on that he wouldn't be able to make a living from poetry and so he took an MA at Columbia, writing a thesis on Henry Green, intending to go into teaching. "But I realised I didn't want to be a professor. I wanted to write poetry and so I got a very menial job in publishing in New York where basically I was a typist." He worked at the Oxford University Press and then McGraw-Hill from 1951-55 during which time he had plays put on off-Broadway and wrote a novel, A Nest of Ninnies , with James Schuyler which was published in 1969.
His first collection of poetry, Turandot and Other Poems (1953) was printed in an edition of only 300 copies. "I suppose it was some kind of breakthrough," he says, "but it wasn't until a few years later with my second collection Some Trees (1956) that I felt I might have a larger audience. But they only printed 800 copies of that and it took 10 years to sell out."
Some Trees, which Ashbery says was influenced by the work of Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore, won a competition judged by Auden for inclusion in the Yale young poets series and Auden wrote a foreword. Ashbery says in terms of short-term career development the Auden link was of limited value. "The few people who followed poetry would know about it, but it wasn't like winning an Oscar." Many years later he learned that Auden hadn't wanted to award a prize but was told he wouldn't get paid for judging unless he did. "In his foreword he didn't really talk about the poetry itself and while he was my favourite poet and I find a lot of things in my work that derive from him, I do understand that he might not have been able to like my work."
By the time Some Trees was actually published Ashbery was in France on a Fulbright scholarship and remained there, on and off, for the next 10 years. He acknowledges that the move to Paris was a self-consciously romantic literary adventure but says also that in the mid- 50s "I was dying to get out of America which was at the height of the McCarthy era and the Korean War which I might have been drafted to but wasn't. I was also in a dead end job."
After a year in France Ashbery returned to take some graduate classes in French at New York University before "hoodwinking" his parents that he had more academic work to do in Paris on a thesis about the experimental writer Raymond Roussel. He returned to Paris in 1958, soon abandoned formal academic life and "just stayed on as best I could" for the next seven years. His primary income came from art criticism for the Herald Tribune and specialist art journals.
"I wrote two reviews a week. They were short and only paid five dollars but with that and a little bit of translating I barely made a living." He now says it is "depressing that I used all that energy when I could have been writing things I really wanted to write. But I feel quite proud of quite a lot of those pieces, despite the fact that I wouldn't have written any of them unless I had to somehow cobble together a living."
He says his journalistic productivity didn't affect his ability to write poetry. "I never spent that much time writing poetry. Even now I don't and I could if I wanted to. And being in Paris and writing about art was very stimulating in its own way. I always liked the idea of being a foreigner and indeed in America I have often felt like a foreigner." Ashbery lived for a time with the French writer Pierre Martory who he says "had an enormous influence on my life. It was very comforting that the things that irritated me about France he also found irritating."
He was living in Paris in 1962 when his third volume of poetry, The Tennis Court Oath, was published. It received very lit tle review coverage and "no favourable ones at all". Mark Ford says that while Some Trees was poised between an avant-garde taking apart of poetry and an allegiance to the likes of Auden, the cut-up and collage techniques in The Tennis Court Oath were just about taking apart. "It was with Rivers and Mountains (1966) he began putting back together the poetry and ever since, even though he has experimented with things like prose poems ( Three Poems, 1972), the twin columns of Litany (1979) and the very very long poem of Flow Chart (1991), they have all essentially been different ways of approaching a relatively settled, while continually evolving, style."
Rivers and Mountains was published the same year as Ashbery came home to look after his mother following the death of his father. The America he returned to was radically different to the country he had left. "It was a shock leaving Paris and Pierre, and I was extremely unhappy for a time. But I did realise something had happened in the world and the old values that I had felt were so oppressive had been somehow turned upside down and that was something I could enjoy."
He says there was also an entirely new audience for poetry. "The Beats and the hippie revolution prepared the way. I don't really like beat poetry very much but there was a general housecleaning in literature and poetry and they played their part. When I left America poetry readings were just for people like Auden. When I came back there was something on virtually every night in New York." Rivers and Mountains was shortlisted for the National Book Award and Ashbery admits to a sense of vindication. "I was glad I had hung on and not abandoned poetry. And being in this new America had a liberating effect that enabled me to go beyond the unsatisfactory experiments that made up most of the Tennis Court Oath . "
As time went on he became an increasingly public figure and lent his weight to causes such as the anti-Vietnam war movement. "I went on the huge Central Park demonstration against the war when we marched to the UN, although me and my friends did stop off at a hotel bar to have a few margaritas on the way. But I don't put things like that in my poetry because I don't feel it is efficient. I think marching is an efficient thing to do while writing poetry [about it] would be too often preaching to the choir. I don't write about my personal life either. It's not because I don't like it or am embarrassed. I just think most people have the same type of experiences; we're sort of unhappy when we are children, we fall in love and we get disillusioned when we are a little older. There is a general pattern."
Alan Jenkins says Ashbery's work was a bracing reaction to the autobiographical and confessional work of the "big American poets like Lowell in the 50s and 60s. Instead here was this kind of hum of American life. If you don't tune into it, it can be someone writing down sentences in no particular order about nothing and that can be very irritating. But if you hear it, it can be very captivating and seductive. I'm not sure that all of it becomes poetry, but when it does it is mysterious and extremely appealing."
Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) was Ashbery's eighth volume of verse and at the time of publication he had given up art criticism and was teaching a poetry course at Brooklyn College. "Those prizes were very welcome. I think I was probably going to get fired from Brooklyn College as New York City was retrenching but instead I was given tenure." He went on to lecture at Harvard for a year before moving to Bard where he has been since 1990.
He has continued regularly to produce new work - apparently publishing only about a third of what he writes, with the rest going straight into his papers at Harvard - and says the poetry world operates in a parallel universe to the general public, who rarely think about poetry. "There is a thriving scene of magazines and internet sites. In the early days I got hardly any positive reviews apart from one that was written by Frank O'Hara, and he was my friend. Almost nobody liked my second book and I did wonder whether I should take up some other form of work. But I thought that I enjoyed doing them at least and I decided to do what I wanted to do."
He says while he still has sympathy for and is attracted to avant-garde art, "I've also always enjoyed more traditional art and poetry. I think there was a false division between abstract art and figurative art for instance. To like one and not the other was always ridiculous. As Schoenberg said sometime in the 1930s, 'there is still a lot of music to be written in the key of C major' and a lot of contemporary composers seem to be trying to write a new kind of music which also can sound traditional. This is kind of what I'd like to do myself. I'd like to write like Tennyson but make it new."
He says when he won the prizes it changed people's perceptions of his work: "They started to think that if they couldn't understand it there was something wrong with them. Then I think some people became a bit resentful and started saying that it's not their fault it was mine. But people without any background in literature began to read my work and I got letters saying they liked it. It was very gratifying. Despite what everyone said, I always thought that there was something simple and penetrable in my poetry screaming to be let out."
John Lawrence Ashbery
Born: Rochester, NY July 28 1927.
Education: Deerfield Academy, Mass; Harvard; Columbia; New York University.
Partner: David Kermani.
Career: 1951-54 Oxford University Press; '54-55 McGraw-Hill; '60-85 art critic; '74-90 Professor of English, Brooklyn College; '89-90 Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry, Harvard; 1990- Charles P Stevenson Professor, Bard College, NY.
Some poetry collections: 1953 Turandot and Other Poems; '56 Some Trees; '62 The Tennis Court Oath; '66 Rivers and Mountains; '75 Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror; '79 Houseboat Days; '84 A Wave; '85 Selected Poems; '91Flow Chart; '92 Hotel Lautréamont; '94 And the Stars Were Shining; '98 Wakefulness; '99 Girls on the Run; 2002 Chinese Whispers; '05 Where Shall We Wander.
Where Shall I Wander is published by Carcanet.
Friday, November 30, 2007
Notes From the Air
Selected Later Poems
By John Ashbery
ECCO; 400 PAGES; $34.95
"Some people have an idea a day," writes John Ashbery in "And the Stars Were Shining,"
others millions, still others are condemned
to spend their life inside an idea, like a
bubble chamber. And these are probably
the suspicious ones. Anyway, in poems
are no ideas ...
Judging by his prodigious recent output - Ashbery's "Notes From the Air: Selected Later Poems" gathers poems from 10 volumes, and this, as the subtitle suggests, represents only the latter half of his career - Ashbery might be assumed to be one of those who have "an idea a day," quite possibly more. Except that it's not at all clear that he isn't entirely sincere (though "sincere" is always a dangerous word to apply to Ashbery) in his denial that poems contain ideas. At any rate, Ashbery's poems often give the impression that any ideas that do happen to find their way in are there unintentionally, and are really quite beside the point.
Which raises the question that has vexed so many readers: Just what is John Ashbery's point? Devotees of the work will immediately respond that asking about the point is itself beside the point. (Perhaps doing so smacks too much of ideas, or of some idea about ideas.) One wouldn't want to say that the point is to resist interpretation and thereby subvert our traditional ideas about meaning. That in itself would be to place Ashbery's project in a fairly conventional means-end framework, and so to distort it. But it might nonetheless constitute a helpful starting point for the reader faced with the obscure, opaque and downright maddening passages that make up so much of "Notes From the Air":
My sudden fruiting into the war
is like a dream now, a dream palace
written for children and others, ogres.
She was braining my boss.
The day bounced green off its boards.
There's nothing to return, really:
Gumballs rattled in the dispenser, I saw
my chance for a siesta and took it
as bluebottles kept a respectful distance.
"Mutt and Jeff"
This random (if not nonsensical) piling of detail upon detail can be off-putting, to say the least. But if the poet is aware of the difficulty, he rarely acknowledges it - though he does from time to time offer something that might look, at first glance, like a justification:
Suppose this poem were about you - would you
put in the things I've carefully left out:
descriptions of pain, and sex, and how shiftily
people behave toward each other? Naw, that's
all in some book it seems. For you
I've saved the descriptions of chicken sandwiches,
and the glass eye that stares at me in amazement
from the bronze mantel, and will never be appeased.
"The Problem of Anxiety"
The audience-participation element that marks this poem is carried even further in "Lemurs and Pharisees," which ends:
Never were we to be invited back again, I mean
no one asked me back again. The others sinned too, each
in her different way, and I have the photographs to prove it,
faded to the ultima thule of legibility.
Next time, you write this.
The urge to read such passages as offering a sort of key to understanding Ashbery's work is another one of those temptations that presumably ought to resisted. It is merely another version of the temptation to regard Ashbery as an essentially conventional poet, trying to do what poets have traditionally tried, for most of human history, to do - that is, to say meaningful things beautifully - by nontraditional means. And this, of course, is to get Ashbery deeply and completely wrong.
Indeed, "Notes From the Air" evinces little concern for either beauty or meaning. More surprisingly, it doesn't seem all that interested in language, either. This signals a radical shift away from the aesthetic that dominates Ashbery's earlier work, up to and including 1984's "A Wave." (In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and pretty much every other major literary prize). The poetry in the books from this period often seemed aimed at turning the reader's attention away from beauty and meaning - those things for which language is so often made to serve as a vehicle - and toward the language itself.
But the more recent poems tend to divert the reader's attention not only from questions of meaning and beauty but from the language as well. One's attention instead is focused on the speaker of the poem, who assumes an insistent, even aggressive role. The pre-1985 poems seemed to descend from a celestial body or some astral plane, or simply to hang in the atmosphere of a room, attached to no particular speaker at all. A great many of the poems in "Notes From the Air," by contrast, come across as dramatic monologues; the experience of reading them is like that of being confronted with an apparently harmless but entirely unpredictable eccentric making demands whose true nature one never quite manages to fathom.
The main problem with "Notes From the Air" - the thing that keeps it from being the great book one would have liked it to be - is that this tone is too pervasive, too consistent, particularly toward the end. This is, of course, a frequent problem with selected collections: Poems that read well in the shorter individual volumes in which they first appeared can be rendered somewhat inert by being packed in with too many others bearing similar DNA. One who reads the collection straight through is all too likely to think, "OK, enough, I get it." "It," of course, is not in this case the point - there is none, we acknowledge - but rather the method, the repertoire, the poetic bag of tricks. And this represents a real danger for any writer, but particularly for Ashbery, precisely because so much of the pleasure his work gives depends on his ability to surprise.
Still, "Notes From the Air" certainly has its pleasures (particularly if you don't try to read it all at once). It does sometimes manage to surprise; it is frequently funny; and occasionally - despite the poet's intentions? - it is quite beautiful. There are passages that tremble on the brink of profundity, and some that drift, perhaps without meaning to, toward the sublime. The English language is Ashbery's chemistry set, and he is the kid who stays at home while everyone else is out playing, mixing the various beakers together at random and hoping for an explosion. "Hey, look what else language can do," he wants to tell us, besides all those boring things you use it for. Part of me wants to write him a letter and thank him for his service to science. And the other part wants to tell him to go outside and get some air, before he ends up spending the better part of his life having lived inside a single idea, like a bubble chamber.
Troy Jollimore's book "Tom Thomson in Purgatory" won the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry.
G FORCE | JOHN ASHBERY
John Ashbery returns to Harvard on Thursday to receive his alma mater's Arts Medal six decades after he graduated. The 81-year-old poet has won virtually every major literary award, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award. He spoke via telephone from his home in Hudson, N.Y. Here is an edited and condensed version of the conversation.
Q. How did you get interested in poetry?
A. I was about 15. I won a prize in a high school class. Time magazine used to have current-event contests. You had a choice of several books. The only book that appealed to me happened to be an anthology of 20th-century poetry. I started reading it and never looked back.
Q. Why is poetry important?
A. Its beauty is its impracticality. It's also a way of connecting with our lives in a way which I don't see any way of doing otherwise. It's not only the daily emotional life but also the life of our dreams.
Q. Cambridge's poet populist, Peter Payack, is asking residents to submit a few lines of poetry for a "community poem." Are ideas like this good for poetry?
A. I like the idea of many voices contributing to a single poem. The 19th-century proto-surrealist French poet Lautréamont once wrote that poetry should be made by everybody, and that sounds like what this project is carrying out.
Q. Do you have a favorite poet? Poem?
A. Let me see. (Long pause) One would certainly be John Donne. "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning." It manages to say everything.
Q. Your poetry has been described as difficult. How much work should poetry require of the reader?
A. I intend my poetry to be read without head scratching. I think of it as something very immediate like music, which embraces one without having anything to do about it. Of course, that's not the opinion of many critics of my work, but that's the way I see it.
Q. You were a contestant on "Quiz Kids" when you were 14 and loved "The Book of Knowledge" as a boy. What about the collection of information interests you?
A. I just have one of those minds that collects all kinds of intellectual lint.
Q. You are still writing poetry and last fall you had an exhibit of your collages at a Manhattan gallery. Could you please share some lessons of a long life?
A. I go back to Harvard and see all the same buildings and streets and rivers. It seems as though this was only a few months ago that I was there. I don't know that I have really accumulated any wisdom in my fourscore years. I feel as unprepared now as I was when I was a student. I guess I'm just an 80-year-old adolescent. Or 81.
19 Oct 2010
By Jeremy Noel-Tod
John Ashbery: Collected Poems, 1956-1987
ed by Mark Ford
1,058PP, Carcanet, £17.95
John Ashbery’s poetic talent, as reviewers have increasingly noted, is the gift that keeps on giving. Since Flow Chart, his book-length poem of 1991, he has averaged a new volume every two years. These have largely been collections of shorter poems, which, without any marked decline in quality, feel like so many lengths of the same dreamlike bolt of cloth. The pleasure of late Ashbery is the sustained extension of a great American style, “wide as a mountain’s flank / and caked with curious chevrons”.
There’s something of the mountainous flank about Collected Poems: 1956-1987 too, which reprints the 12 books before Flow Chart along with a whole book’s worth of uncollected poems, some notes and a brief chronology. Compiled by the poet Mark Ford, these few pages of biography bring some detail to the kind of life that results in 2,000-plus pages of lyric poetry.
A farm child raised partly by his grandparents, Ashbery’s “lifelong interest in cinema” was sparked at the age of six by Disney’s Three Little Pigs. By nine, he had decided he wanted to become a surrealist painter. As a teenager, he began to listen to classical music and read modern poetry. Having got to Harvard, he published his poems and met like-minded contemporaries. He moved to New York, wrote a Master’s thesis on the novelist Henry Green, and in 1955 won the Yale Younger Poets prize, judged by W H Auden, which resulted the following year in the publication of his debut, Some Trees.
Summaries of this kind naturally select the details that seem most revealing in retrospect. But a child with that many interests in the arts was perhaps unlikely to go into farming. No area of contemporary culture is alien to Ashbery’s panoramic manner (his encyclopedic memory also made him a Quiz Kids radio show finalist at 14). And his long poems in particular read like the novel of the film of the painting, scored into verse for orchestral performance.
This book reminds us that Ashbery’s style, always distinctive, has nevertheless developed by stages. The most experimental of these was his second volume, The Tennis Court Oath (1962), partly written while living in Paris, which employed surrealist collage techniques to create new texts. It was the least well received of all his books, although it contains some of his most abruptly exciting lines (“The lake a lilac cube”).
The experiment also liberated Ashbery’s fluency of invention, which rolled on to Rivers and Mountains (1966), with its Walt Whitmanesque exercise in the naming of rivers, and “Into the Dusk-Charged Air”, an incantation of deadpan inclusiveness: “The Parnaiba / Is flowing, like the wind-washed Cumberland”. It also essayed “The Skaters”, the first of his long, discursive works. Later came the title poem of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), the enigmatic authority of which put Ashbery – as the critic David Trotter has said – on “everybody’s reading list”.
Since then he has, like his own description of the moon, “climbed to the centre of heaven, installed”. This book is a slightly revised version of Ashbery’s recent induction into the Library of America series. Unfortunately for British readers, the high standards of that imprint have translated here into a paperback that is a little too hefty to be transportable.
It is good, nevertheless, to have all the early work together in one volume, especially Ashbery’s less-well-known mid-Seventies collaboration with artist Joe Brainard, The Vermont Notebook. Brainard’s cool suburban doodles complement prose that ranges from lists of words and magazine clippings to direct diary-like passages (“Nov 3 Sometimes the idea of going to the bathroom can make me sick”).
One of these – printed between a twin-tub washer-dryer and a full-frontal male nude – offers a sober motto for the poetry around it: “America is a fun country. Still, there are aspects of it which I would prefer not to think about.”
Ashbery’s inventiveness has produced some of the great, fun poems of post-war America, including a sestina about Popeye. But his affluent language is shadowed everywhere by an awareness of reality “dry as poverty”, as the first poem here has it.
The combination has made for modern poetry at its most romantic, ironic and democratic. Like most people who have fulfilled their childhood ambition to become a major poet, Ashbery has his longueurs. “I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way”, to quote his Three Poems.
It’s tantalising to hear from this edition that he has recently completed a translation of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, and it’s interesting to read odd uncollected pieces like 100 Multiple-Choice Questions. But readers now need to be offered the other, less desk-bound version of an up-to-date Selected Poems.
Published: 16 January 2013
Is it because, or in spite of, his resistance to the hegemony of linearity and closure that John Ashbery is one of the most feted and famous American poets of the past thirty years? He made his reputation with (1975), a collection which won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and he was the first living poet to be canonized by the Library of America when, in 2008, it published his .
There is disagreement, however, as to whether his poems “mean” anything. They frustrate and disappoint those who look to poetry for the lyric development of an idea, offering instead a refreshing immersion into thought itself. Although he has said his aim is to produce a poem “that the critic cannot even talk about”, his work is in fact full of indications as to how it might be read. A poem called “But What is the Reader to Make of This?” answers its own question: “. . . it is the personal / Interior life that gives us something to think about. / The rest is only drama.” Self-encounter implies the need to get beyond what normally passes for thinking and Ashbery’s poems are consequently full of confused background chatter – some of it literary – from which clear signals can occasionally be heard. In “Thank You For Not Cooperating”, this mock Prufrockery is particularly audible. But Eliot’s range of reference gives Prufrock a lingering, refulgent grandeur. Ashbery dismisses the “celebrated lament” as just another “childish idea” that “never . . . impress[ed] anybody”.
Thank You For Not Cooperating
Down in the street there are ice-cream parlors to go to And the pavement is a nice, bluish slate-gray. People laugh a lot. Here you can see the stars. Two lovers are singing Separately, from the same rooftop: “ Leave your clothes, and go. It is time now. It was time before too, but now it is really time. You will never have enjoyed storms so much As on these hot sticky evenings that are more like August Than September. Stay. A fake wind wills you to go And out there on the stormy river witness buses bound for Connecticut, And tree-business, and all that we think about when we stop thinking. The weather is perfect, the season unclear. Weep for your going But also expect to meet me in the near future, when I shall disclose New further adventures, and that you shall continue to think of me.”
The wind dropped, and the lovers Sang no more, communicating each to each in the tedium Of self-expression, and the shore curled up and became liquid And so the celebrated lament began. And how shall we, people All unused to each other and to our own business, explain It to the shore if it is given to us To circulate there “in the near future” the way of our coming And why we were never here before? The counter-proposals Of the guest-stranger impede our construing of ourselves as Person-objects, the ones we knew would get here Somehow, but we can remember as easily as the day we were born The maggots we passed on the way and how the day bled And the night too on hearing us, though we spoke only our childish Ideas and never tried to impress anybody even when somewhat older.
John Ashbery (1983)