Tuesday, March 8, 2011


15. John Ashbery: Selected  Poems (American, 1985).

Let’s finish one thing we started: my list of '15 Works That Stayed With You.'  If you recall, I limited myself to things I read before turning 30.  I’m cheating a little with this volume of Ashbery for, even though it was published four years before I reached that age, I didn’t buy a copy till 1991.  I’d read some of the stuff in it earlier, of course.  My first encounter with Ashbery was around 1981, when I first read the Self-Portrait volume.  I didn’t pick him up again until April Galleons (1987), the summer I turned 30, and it’s because that book made such a big impression on me, at the end of the period of impressionable youth that I’ve been using these posts to recall, that I feel I must include Ashbery in the count.

Perhaps the book I should list here is April Galleons, which is not included in this volume, but, if it were, here’s my list of the poems from AG that should be here: “Adam Snow,” “Finnish Rhapsody,” “Alone in the Lumber Business,” “Vaucanson,” “Unreleased Movie,” “Letters I Did Or Did Not Get,” “Song: ‘Mostly Places…’,” “Sighs and Inhibitions,” “Someone You Have Seen Before,” “Becalmed on Strange Waters,” “Winter Weather Advisory,” “Never to Get it Really Right,” “Wet are the Boards,” “Bilking the Statues,” and “April Galleons.”  There, and that’s my contribution to the Ashbery selection process.

It’s taken me so long to get around to writing this post because I don’t really know what I want to say about Ashbery qua Ashbery.  So I might as well put the impression he made on me as a reader and writer into context.  The poet, after Berryman’s Dream Songs which I’ve already commented on, who took me over for awhile, in the period, 1979-83, when I lived in Philadelphia and read poetry at various poetry gatherings, was Wallace Stevens.  I read the Collected Poems while a nightguard for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and remember that, for the first time since my immersion in Willis Barnstone’s fine anthology Modern European Poets, I found an American poet who seemed to have something in common with poets in that collection, which I greatly admired.  Simply put: I didn’t like most verse written in English in the 20th century, and still don’t.  I preferred translations into English, at that time.  But it’s interesting to me that I’d read Ashbery’s Self-Portrait before I wandered into Stevens and I didn’t feel that same kindredness to the Europeans there, though I would say now that one reason Ashbery makes this list is because I do see him in that line.  Certainly more so than anyone with as long a career who came after Stevens.

Next month Ashbery’s translations of Rimbaud’s Illuminations will appear, and I’m eager.  For there, I suspect, I will find much occasion to reflect on what these two poets—the first and the last poets on my list, respectively—say to one another.  Rimbaud, I’ve always felt, made reading Ashbery possible, or, to put it another way, Ashbery’s investment in Rimbaud, to whatever extent that exists or has always existed, is something I’ve intuited in some way I haven’t clearly defined.  It may be too obvious to be worth stating, on one level, but on another level—“where the meanings are,” as Saint Emily would say—it could be the factor that explains much about what I want poetry to be.

That I’m hardly alone in recognizing the worth of Ashbery’s poetry is a staggering understatement.  The man is about as fêted as a poet can be, and still be deemed “incomprehensible” and the like.  He was born the same year as my mother and that makes him, in many respects, the true parental elder in my reading.  As a writer, my agon with him, to use Bloom’s term, started with the recognition (reading AG) that here was verse in English I could  find delight in.  And that sense of delight in verse—which had been eclipsed, mostly, when I looked into contemporary lit journals—re-animated me.  Which is to say it inspired me to write derivative verse, the kind of stuff we were fond of calling “Ashbery-lite” when I helped weed the slush-piled submissions to the old Yale Younger Poets Series (vor Glück).  I got stuck in the wake of Ashbery for most of the ‘90s it seems to me, and why not?  After AG came Flow Chart (1991) and then Hotel Lautréamont (1992), and then And The Stars Were Shining (1994)—the man, in his ‘60s, was at the top of his game—and then all those books I recently (in 2010) got around to reading: Wakefulness (1998), Your Name Here (2000), Chinese Whispers (2002), Where Shall I Wander (2005),  A Worldly Country (2007), Planisphere (2009).  I still haven’t gotten to Can You Hear, Bird? (1995) or Girls on the Run (1999).  I won’t say I’ve ever parted company with his manner as, simply, the best way to write poetry when the purpose of the endeavor is to find out what will happen if one chooses to write in lines.

Is that too humble a task for poetry?  Not in our age, I’d insist.  It may be that poetry should be exhortation, wisdom literature, should be declaimed at public events and functions, should narrate, should woo the beloved or berate the beloved, should commemorate the dead, should praise works of art or acts of virtue or valor, should be used to sell life-enhancing products and to involve readers in life-changing projects, but, if so, it should also be used to involve the reader in process.  What process?  The process Stevens described as “the act of the mind finding what will suffice.”  And if becoming a novelist means, as Henry James claimed, becoming “one on whom nothing is lost,” then becoming a poet means becoming one for whom nothing is not verse.  Ashbery’s nothing is Stevens’ “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”  It is poetry as the dance of the mind among the measures provided by words.

Which isn’t to say that Ashbery never has an “object” on view—such as Parmigianino’s famous painting—but rather that what the “view” is will always be tempered by lyric discourse, a lyricism that accepts one main dictum: words are never an end in themselves, they are always a provisional field, a range, and in that range there are any number of moves, the only condition is whether or not the language, the words, the terms, move to the same tune, reply to the same impetus, create a chain of thought.   I say this not as a reader of Ashbery, primarily, but as a writer in the wake of him.  Last spring I set myself the task of writing “in response” to some of those latter volumes by JA I mentioned above (I think it was Wakefulness and Your Name Here primarily) and what I produced, called “Metro Lace,” is simply me doing (from 9 April to 2 June) what I’ve just described.  Then in August I turned 51.  Am I done with the lesson of Ashbery?

Perhaps, but if so I expect that Ashbery’s Illuminations will be an epilogue I won’t want to miss.

As to this volume of Selected: here are the poems Harold Bloom assigned when I sat-in on his class my first semester at Yale as a post-doc: “Soonest Mended,” “Parergon,” “S-P in a Convex Mirror,” “Wet Casements,” “Syringa,” “As We Know,” “Tapestry,” “The Absence of a Noble Presence,” “At North Farm.”

And here are the titles I made insistent marks by: “The Grapevine,” “Illustration,” “‘How Much Longer Will I Be Able to Inhabit the Divine Sepulcher…’,” “The Ecclesiast,” “A Blessing in Disguise,” “Clepsydra,” “Soonest Mended,” “Decoy,” “Sortes Vergilianae,” “The System,” “Grand Galop,” “Mixed Feelings,” “S-P in a Convex Mirror,” “Pyrography,” “Daffy Duck in Hollywood,” “Houseboat Days,” “And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name,” From “Litany,” “This Configuration,” “Their Day,” “Whatever It Is, Wherever You Are,” and, especially, “A Wave.”

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