We are used to hearing of poets so private they speak for all of us. We are not used to hearing that John Ashbery is among them. Anyone who has ever been baffled by Ashbery’s work will understand the temptation to conclude that here is a poet so private he is truly private, so difficult he is truly inaccessible. But to arrive at that dead end is exasperating, if only because the reputation leads you to expect much more.
Why shouldn’t people expect access to a poetry so widely honored for what it is doing with their language? Why shouldn’t they expect a poet, as Emerson promised, to apprise us “not of his wealth, but of the commonwealth”? Those are not retrograde or feeble expectations, and because I think they are powerfully met in the work of John Ashbery I would champion him not as our most private poet, but our most public one.
The difficulty is that his poetry is so public, so accurately a picture of the world we live in, that it scarcely resembles anything we’ve ever known. Just so, the present is indeed a world none of us has ever known, because the words to describe it can be put together only after the fact. When the poet does put them together the combination comes as a shock. One may at first regard the combination as hermetically private. Only gradually do we realize that it describes the public world we were living in just moments ago, that some prophet has arrived with news of the commonwealth.
I suppose prophet sounds as though I’m claiming a generous role for the poet when anyone ought to know the audience for poetry is limited first in size and second in its willingness to suspend, not disbelief but irony. I suppose also that readers of poetry are even more disaffected than most when it comes to the commonwealth. They are not an audience to whom a poet as savvy as John Ashbery would innocently address Emersonian prophecies.
True enough, but let me offer a proposition that shouldn’t be surprising: the audience that reads the poetry is not always the one for which the poet writes. The events that produce a poet are many and various, but one of them is probably not his first contact with an English professor or first reading at the local poetry project. The audience he would love to reach is more likely “the fair-sheaved many” who don’t give a hoot for poetry. It will include the father he could never please, the mother bewildered by her strange offspring, the younger brother who died at the age of nine. It is made up, in other words, of all the unreachable people, the ones who appear in Ashbery’s “Melodic Trains” as figures on the station platform while the poet watches them from the standing train. Though he identifies them as “my brothers,” it is precisely their remoteness that accounts for the plaintive tone in which he continues.
If I were to get down now to stretch, take a few steps
In the wearying and world-weary clouds of steam like great
White apples, might I just through proximity and aping
Of postures and attitudes communicate this concern of mine
To them? That their jagged attitudes correspond to mine,
That their beefing strikes answering silver bells within
My own chest . . . ?
No, he could not communicate his concern, at least not in poetry. If they are reading at all, his brothers are probably occupied with the latest manual on how to get more out of life, and poetry will be far down the list of recommended exercises. One knows this, but it doesn’t lessen the insistent wish to reach them. Instead, one dresses the wish in any number of disguises—ironic or even slapstick.
In this way you can prophesy to your brothers all you want without fear of looking foolish before the worldly audience that comes to your readings. You release a little horse that “trots up with a letter in its mouth” or in Hollywood fashion direct a butler to enter “with a letter on a tray / Whose message is to change everything.” The poetry audience laughs at the joke, but the regularity with which Ashbery returns to the device makes me believe, though he too is laughing, that he is hopefully serious about the prophecy’s having arrived.
Arrival is not the same as being understood, however, and we are told that the former Quiz Kid was at first hurt by the baffled response to his work. By now he may enjoy being a mystery, having confirmed his suspicion that it’s the mystery part of truth that makes it marketable. But why does he remain mysterious? There are two reasons, and the first is his style. By itself his style is so beguiling or outrageous, depending on your point of view, that the transfixed reader is powerless to get beyond it.
The beguiled explain their condition by saying that Ashbery does not “work” or “mean” like other poetry. The outraged assert that it isn’t poetry at all, or if it is then its essential ingredient must be obscurity. But no prophet sets out to be permanently obscure; where’s the immortality in that? And no master stylist is after a result that fails to “work” its magic. With some effort, and some willingness too, I think we ought to be able to find his style out.
Ashbery lives not only in the world, he seems to live by all conceptions of it simultaneously, regardless of how contradictory the lot may be.
The second reason Ashbery remains mysterious is his choice of subjects, or, it would be better to say, his context. We are accustomed to pinched poetry, the kind whose context is one Incan rock, and we know how to deal with that. In Ashbery we encounter a poet who, as his friend Frank O’Hara wrote, “is always marrying the whole world.” Readers who prefer their Incan rock may agree with the reviewer who complained of Ashbery that “you can’t possibly quote anything ‘out of context’ since there is never a context.”
But every poet marks out his subject matter and it is not possible for him to write independent of that context. It is simply that the Ashbery context is so wide it takes a great deal of reading before you can visit its boundaries. Until then you may understandably feel that the signs along the way point in all directions and nowhere in particular.
Style and context do not occur separately in a poem, and the one is ultimately meaningful only as it is enfolded in the other. Much foolishness can be produced by trying to consider them as things apart. But this essay is not a poem and there’s no alternative. I must try to untangle them, doing as little violence to their connections as possible, so when they are reunited we may have some idea of how they came to make a coherent whole in the first place. I am going to begin with context—the context of a poet who married the world.
Ashbery announced his engagement in the opening line of his first book: “We see us as we truly behave.” The strictness and the generosity are in that “truly.” The strictness is that we will not see us as we might have behaved or ought to behave. The generosity is that we are going on a tour of the world as it might look on “a day of general honesty,” knowing there is nothing larger or more extraordinary. It will be a vast excursion, and we can expect the itinerary to be recalcitrant even as we follow it: “As laughing cadets say, ‘In the evening / Everything has a schedule, if you can find out what it is.’ ”
One way to learn the schedule is to go along with it; in retrospect, it is easier to see what it was. If this sounds too spineless, think of it as a version of Keats’s negative capability. It takes a strong constitution to live into the present so ruthlessly available to whatever is waiting there. And I don’t think it exaggerates to say that Ashbery, of the poets I know, is most ruthlessly available to the present.
In our time that present is largely to be found in the curricula of the city and its sophisticated outposts. Arguably, it could have been found there longer than this; yet we have grown up with a literature that would look energetically in almost any other direction—to the frontier, the sea, Walden, or to a room in Amherst—in order, as it claims, to front the essential facts of life.
Though he started life on a farm in upstate New York, Ashbery has done his “fronting” in the great metropolis—New York, Paris, their suburbs—and a list of his cultural entanglements and cultured acquaintances would be staggering, many times longer than the lists of names he in fact included in the pages of The Vermont Notebook. Larry Rivers, Frank O’Hara, Willem de Kooning, Fairfield Porter, James Schuyler, Jane Freilicher, Kenneth Koch—just a few of those names are enough to stand for the enormous and timely experiences that were there to enlarge this poet’s life. Nor are we star-struck if we insist on the importance of such a constellation. We are not star-struck to note that Mannerist painters Pontormo, Rosso, and Parmigianino, say, were all in Rome before the Sack of UVWX, and that Rosso and Parmigianino worked there, side by side, for four years. It is important that they worked together, one with the other or one against the other, toward a timely style which, unclear as it may have been to them, is now timelessly clearer to us.
In making my case I don’t mean to suggest that the Hamptons today equals Rome before the Sack. But I would not insist on the differences either. So much as Ashbery moved in a timely world, just so much was he able to make that world available to us.
Just so much, as long as we remember that negative capability was to be our guide. “The mind / Is so hospitable, taking in everything / Like boarders,” says the title poem from Houseboat Days. Wallace Stevens reports that his mind was similarly commodious, yet he was perhaps choosier than Ashbery when it came to which boarders to take in. Stevens, one remembers, proposed to “live in the world but outside of existing conceptions of it.”
Ashbery lives not only in the world, he seems to live by all conceptions of it simultaneously, regardless of how contradictory the lot may be. How else would it be possible to bring over into language the ripe complexity of us as we truly behave in this almost “terminally sophisticated” society? When you put his capacity for taking in boarders together with the timely milieus in which the man has moved the result is a brilliant, thus dense, mingling of attitudes and their languages.
In the same way that all colors together appear to be no color so what looked to the reviewer like no context is instead many contexts. Or, to use another illustration, it is many contexts tangled into one like parts of a score, interesting in themselves perhaps, but best all at once.
The conductor, a glass of water, permits all kinds
Of wacky analogies to glance off him, and, circling outward,
To bring in the night. Nothing is too “unimportant”
Or too important, for that matter. The newspaper and the garbage
Wrapped in it, the over, the under.
I hope I am not taken to mean that negative capability makes Ashbery timely, and headed for timelessness, because it prints out a rebus only for the painters, poets, and culturati who have been his friends. No, in the city one sees a great many real people, most of them strangers. They come and go as types; one sees their faces and hears their news, and “Nothing is too ‘unimportant’ / Or too important, for that matter.” The papers are on the stands, the radio is plugged in, films arrive at the movie theater, and all are filled with suggestive abstractions.
To the extent that the city includes the past it is alive with all the suggestions of our culture: “Rome where Francesco / Was at work during the Sack . . . / Vienna where the painting is today . . . / New York, where I am now, which is a logarithm / Of other cities.” With your Keatsian apparatus, you can be as big as the city you live in. But, unless we think this must be a painless way to gain an empire, you can also be as small, as passion-strewn, as constantly slapped up or yanked down—in other words, at civil war. “Is not a man better than a town?” asked Emerson, implying that the two were different. The question could hardly occur to Ashbery: “Whatever the villagers / Are celebrating with less conviction is / The less you.”
Nostalgia, realism, goofiness, and even a shred of the American Dream—in Ashbery’s suburbia they are all available at once.
A good deal is said about the impenetrable solipsism of this poet who is so private he is truly private. It is said in exasperation and as an excuse to quit reading, and its best authority is the poet himself, who will tell us, as he does in Three Poems, that his “elaborate view” really comes from “looking inside.” If he is so solipsistic how can he mean anything?
But grant that Keats was right, that there is such a thing as negative capability, and you have begun to answer the question yourself. For if Keats was right then the elaborate landscape of the city and of the poet’s timely entanglements in it may indeed be found, in their contrariness, by looking inside. At one time or another the mind will believe every squabbling part of itself, the poem mean everything it says. And thus the trick is turned. How can it be solipsism if he means everything?
Everything is landscape:
Perspectives of cliffs beaten by innumerable waves.
More wheatfields than you can count, forests
With disappearing paths, stone towers
And finally and above all the great urban centers, with
Their office buildings and populations, at the center of which
We live our lives, made up of a great quantity of isolated instants
So as to be lost at the heart of a multitude of things.
It has become a cliché to note that the quantity of information in the world has exploded while space has collapsed, and the cliché does not make it the less real. But to say we have turned into a global village is inaccurate. Global is a nod in the right direction but village is a bow to nostalgia. Our culture is nothing so simple or settled as a village. It is more of a stellar explosion caught in an earthly jar, a revolving explosion of needs and demands and diversions, and in the midst of this tumult we take our chances on daily life.
This is the context of John Ashbery, because only in this reality can we see us as we “truly” behave. While he was living in Paris, Ashbery wrote in praise of Raymond Roussel a line that might have been written prospectively of himself: “It is no longer the imaginary world but the real one, and it is exploding around us like a fireworks factory in one last dazzling orgy of light and sound.” To be aware of this context is an immense help to knowing the poems.
For example, if a fireworks of attitudes competes for the same pen (or typewriter in this case) won’t they comment on one another? Yes, they will, sometimes in the poem itself and sometimes from offstage. So to have missed the context is also to miss this commentary—a commentary that provides some of the best moments, playful and rueful, that Ashbery can offer.
There are good precedents for such serious play, though probably more in English poetry than our own. I am thinking especially of the influence who peeps at us over two Ashbery titles (“The Picture of Little J. A. in a Prospect of Flowers” and “As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat”), and that is Andrew Marvell. Like Ashbery, Marvell saw a lot of the timely world and like Ashbery he seemed to find a single point of view impossible, not even desirable.
The masterly example is “The Garden,” and a masterly reading of it is the one by Joseph Summers in his book The Heirs of Donne and Johnson. What Summers says of the poem’s extravagant first stanza strikes me as exactly right: “The outrageous suavity and the calculated rationality of the lines invite us to smile and warn us of extravagances to come. The poem is going to claim everything for a life of infinite leisure in the garden; but the ways in which it makes its claim reveal the urbanity of the poet who created this fictional voice, his recognition of values beyond those which he pretends to dismiss and those which he pretends exhaust all the pleasant and virtuous possibilities of human life.”
Of course I’ve quoted this remark at length because it applies so perfectly to Ashbery’s poems as well. Consider the opening of “Definition of Blue,” which has caused its share of trouble.
The rise of capitalism parallels the advance of romanticism
And the individual is dominant until the close of the nineteenth century.
In our own time, mass practices have sought to submerge the personality
By ignoring it, which has caused it instead to branch out in all directions
Far from the permanent tug that used to be its notion of “home.”
Robert Pinsky writes in The Situation of Poetry that this opening is too funny for us “to take any subsequent idea quite seriously.” If I read him right, he is disappointed because the poem therefore “fails to convince” us of the value that will be advanced in its lovely last lines. But we do not ask to be convinced of the argument in “The Garden.”
On the contrary, the outrageous suavity and calculated rationality of the lines invite us to smile and warn us of the extravagances to come. Like Marvell, Ashbery is eating his cake and having it too, being serious and having fun. To know the urbane context in which this is possible is to be let in on the seriousness, and the fun, ourselves.
If we have decided, then, to give up our gravitas and go along with the play, we will find it necessary to break free of the confines of a single poem. One attitude heckles another from poem to poem, or forgives it from collection to collection. You can trace this intermural effect in the recurrent appearance of the American garden suburb, whose beauty and boredom make for one of Ashbery’s dearest subjects, much as the English pleasure garden was one of Marvell’s.
A Nest of Ninnies, the novel written in collaboration with James Schuyler, is about some nice people who live on Long Island, read Proust, go out for drinks at a Howard Johnson’s, and escort their European guests on a tour of the Walt Whitman Shopping Plaza. Then there is “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape,” where the very form—the troubador’s sestina—implies a satire on account of its content. The envoy ends roughly: “Popeye chuckled and scratched / His balls: it sure was pleasant to spend a day in the country.”
But the boorishness is smoothed out in the same collection by the graceful “Evening in the Country,” though we can hear Mr. Offstage Attitude still sniping away in the wings. One has to read twice the last phrase in these lines: “things eventually take care of themselves / With rest and fresh air and a good view of things.”
In “Pyrography” the theme hangs on. “At Bolinas / The houses doze and seem to wonder why . . . / Why be hanging on here?” Yet it is both more fun and more poignant if we can recognize in the dozing houses their allusive echo of “The One Thing That Can Save America.” That earlier poem began by being fed up with the “overgrown suburbs, / Places of known civic pride, of civil obscurity,” yet closed with an elegiac and mixed affirmation brought by another of those prophetic messages, this one telling of danger . . .
and the mostly limited
Steps that can be taken against danger
Now and in the future, in cool yards,
In quiet small houses in the country,
Our country, in fenced areas, in cool shady streets.
Nostalgia, realism, goofiness, and even a shred of the American Dream—in Ashbery’s suburbia they are all available at once.
Excerpted from “The Prophetic Ashbery” from On Autumn Lake: The Collected Essays. Copyright (c) 2022 by Douglas Crase. Reprinted with permission of Nightboat Books.