John Ashbery is a celebrated and challenging poet. Herbert Paul Grice is a
celebrated and challenging cricketer. John Ashbery is, besides, an enigmatic
genius of modern poetry whose energy, daring and boundless command of language
raised verse to brilliant and baffling heights. Herbert Paul Grice is an
enigmatic genius of the Demijohns, a cricket club he founded while at St.
John's. ("College," Nancy Mitford, echoing the non-U, woud add -- Mitford says
that adding 'college' to "St. John's" ("It surely ain't a church!") is the mark
of the ignoramus).
Ashbery, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and often mentioned as a Nobel candidate,
has his home in Hudson, New York. Herbert Paul Grice has his home in Halborne,
an affluent suburb of Staffordshire, or Warwickshire. ("When I was born, it was
part of Warwickshire, but when my FATHER was born -- he was also christened
"Herbert" -- it was part of Staffordshire -- so, as the Americans say, go
figure!"). Ashbery's death was from natural causes. Grice's death was from
non-natural causes, alas. (Popperians might discuss the above). Few poets are
so exalted in their lifetimes as Ashbery is.
Ashbery is the first poet alive (when he was alive) to have a volume published
by the Library of America dedicated exclusively to his work. Ashbery's
collection, "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," is the rare winner of the book
world's unofficial triple crown: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award
and the National Book Critics Circle prize.
Ashbery was given a National Humanities Medal and credited with changing "how
we read poetry." Among a generation that included Richard Wilbur, W.S. Merwin
and Adrienne Rich, Ashbery stands out for his audacity and for his wordplay,
for his modernist shifts between high oratory and everyday chatter, for his
humour and wisdom and dazzling runs of allusions (or implicatures) and
(Fregeian) sense impressions.
"No figure looms so large in poetry as John Ashbery," Langdon Hammer notes.
Hammer goes on: "Ashbery's phrases always feel newly minted."
"His poems emphasize verbal surprise and delight, not the ways that linguistic
patterns restrict us. "
"In this regard, he is like Grice, only different." And implicating, "And as
opposed to Popper?" But to love Ashbery, it helps to make sense of Ashbery, or
least get caught up enough in such refrains as "You are freed/including
barrels/heads of the swan/forestry/the night and stars fork" not to worry about
Writing for Slate, Meghan O'Rourke advises Ashbery's "Griceian" addressees "not
to try to UNDERSTAND the poems but to try to take pleasure from their
arrangement, the way you listen to music." O'Rourke is obviously referring to
P. F. Strawson, the Oxonian philosopher, of St. John's (sometimes) who inverted
Grice's definition of "to mean" to provide one (suggested by Grice in
"Meaning," 1948, that Anne Strawson typed) for "to understand".
Joan Didion once attended an Ashbery reading simply because she wanted to
determine what the poet was poetising about.
"And I don't think I found out!," she recollects, echoing Grice!
("Meanings are not found.")
"I don't find any direct statements in life," Ashbery explains to the Times in
"My poetry imitates or reproduces the way knowledge or awareness comes to me,
which is by fits and starts and by indirection."
This is an obvious reference to Grice on implicature as understatement (or
The locus classicus is Searle (a student of Strawson at Oxford) and his account
of 'indirect' (vide "indirection") speech acts as implicature. Cfr. Holdcroft
on implicature in his "Indirect forms of communication" in The Journal of
Ashbery goes on:
"I do not think poetry arranged in neat patterns would reflect that situation."
He adds: "Do you?"
Ashbery's implicature is that THE TIMES's journalists usually care a hoot about
the subjects they are interviewing ("It's all about the money!")
Interviewed by The Associated Press, Ashbery jokes that if he could turn his
name into a verb, "to Ashbery," it would mean "to confuse the hell out of
D. C. Dennett, formerly of All Souls, and a tutee of Grice, did coin "to grice"
to mean, "to fill with details". Kemmerling coined an antonym, "to disgrice" --
which for Kemmerling is merely to 'strawsonise'.
Ashbery should have noted that if 'ashbery' is going to be used as a verb (cfr.
Humpty Dumpty on verbs) it does not need to be capitalised.
Ashbery also is a highly regarded translator and critic -- not necessarily in
that order, Popper would add.
("How do we varify 'high regard"?)
Ashbery was the art critic for The New York Herald-Tribune in Europe, New York
magazine and Newsweek and the poetry critic for Partisan Review.
By 'art critic,' we mean (alla Grice) that he criticised art (vide Urmson on
Ashbery translated works by Arthur Rimbaud, Raymond Roussel and numerous other
"I did it because I know French.” This poses a problem for Popper. "What does
it mean to _know_ French?" "If we go by Gettier's 'conceptual analysis'," that
Popper despised, "we would say that Ashbery believes that he knows French, and
that Ashbery knows French and that it is true that Ashbery knows French. I hope
you'll agree with me that that Oxonian analytical approach is hardly better
than my own dialytical one." Grice commented that "a French poem" can mean
different things. A poem by Rimbaud translated by Ashbery "can still be
considered, via implicature, to be _in French_." "Or not," he adds, to aggrave
Sir Peter Strawson.