Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Alas, Edie, we are no longer ourselves.

Battell Chapel at Yale has been the site for several readings I've attended. It's always a bit strange to see some literary great standing up there in front of the ornate apse with that big cross and the huge pipe organ off to the side. Poetry readings in churches -- the Bollingen reading was also in a church -- but I'm not going to go on about poetry as a secular religion and all that. But, as if it were a real church service of my youth, I stand at the back.

Heaney packed 'em in; Rushdie was overflow; Rich more or less filled the place. John Ashbery, famous for his "inaccessible" poetry, had a more modest draw. And the reading itself was modest, despite Prof. Langdon Hammer's enthused intro that should have alerted the merely curious in attendance that this guy is the real thing. If there's a poet amongst us, his name is Ashbery (for my money). But listening to him tonight, and thinking of all the astute grad students who are willing to admit -- it's almost a badge of defiance around Yale I guess -- they "don't get" Ashbery, I tried to think what it is that convinces me about this poetry whereas with Heaney, Rich, whoever, I'm almost always nearly bored by the mannerism of accomplishment, put off by the obvious stretch to "poeticize" -- embarrassed by riches? Maybe.

Ashbery is effortless. And maybe that's why "they" can't get it. It doesn't reward the patented Yale close reading very much (which is not to say it doesn't at all); it resists any kind of paraphrase, it mainly disregards "topics" or "themes." But to say, which is generally perceived as the answer, that it's "about" language or poetry is to act as if those concepts are something other than a particular instance of language. And to say, like Beckett about the Wake, that it is not 'about something' it simply is the thing is to kick against the pricks, as it were, making of language a closed system with no communicative value, an object to be looked at. But Ashbery's poetry convinces me because it confronts the arbitrariness of language, the sheer audacity and weirdness of giving names to things, of pretending that words are adequate to experience, of daring to act like what you say "makes sense" in more than some slippery, provisional, and ultimately idiosyncratic way. And yet we do know what the words mean. And we do recognize that this is a poetic use of language, a manner, as if one might wear one's hair never the same way twice and be known for that, recognized even.

And I don't mean to say that all Ashbery poems do the same thing. Tonight he read half the time from Where Shall I Wander -- which I've read and which I found jokey and deliberately laconic in poems he read like "Interesting People of Newfoundland" and "Coma Berenices" -- and the other half from A Worldly Country, due out in February. The latter stuff had a much edgier tone and seemed darker, even at times testy; I'm looking forward to seeing the pantoum "Phantoum" in print (no doubt it's already appeared somewhere) -- in any batch of Ashbery poems there's always one that does it for me. He ended with a rhymed poem -- not great (rhymes like "closet" and "deposit" kept a light tone), but more accessible, perhaps, in that with something as artificial as rhyme involved, it sounded unusually straightforward and direct. Paradoxical? Perverse? Very Ashbery.


Andrew Shields said...

Effortless: when I saw Arlo Guthrie the other night, he did some fingerpicking blues—"St. James Infirmary" and "Key to the Highway." What made the tunes so impressive and memorable was the effortless virtuosity of his playing, so effortless that all I listened to was the music, not the virtuosity. (The whole performance was extremely relaxed and joyous, but those two were the most stunning moments.)

Is that something like what you mean with JA? A.

Donald Brown said...

hey, good comparison -- it probably is a lot like listening to a virtuoso musician play. Maybe if more literary types had spent their formative years listening to Jerrrrry live, they'd have developed an ear for Ashberyan light fantastic?

Interesting about Arlo though. It never occurred to me he was that accomplished a guitarist. I guess you've seen Richard Thompson live -- my idea of great guitarist.