Grice would call Ashbery ‘obscure’. After all, Grice has a desideratum, ‘the
desideratum of conversational clarity.’ And the opposite of ‘clarity’ is
‘obscurity’. Indeed, one of Grice’s maxims goes, “Avoid obscurity of
Yet “Ashberyian obscurity” has become a cliché. Note for example:
“Donlan's own discovery is that the form is not necessarily wedded to the
notorious Ashberyian obscurity, that apparent flight from meaning…”
So, is there a way Grice can _teach_ us to _approach_ Ashbery’s oeuvre?
John Lawrence Ashbery wrote his first poem when he was 8. It rhymes and makes
“The tall haystacks are great sugar mounds.
These are the fairies' camping grounds.”
Ashbery goes on instead, to write poems that mostly don’t rhyme, and don’t make
Fregeian sense, either.
Ashbery’s aim, as he puts it, is "to produce a poem that the critic cannot even
It worked. Early on, a frustrated detractor called him "the Doris Day of
Even today a critic like Helen Vendler confesses that she's often "mistaken"
about what Ashbery is up to.
You can see why: it simply may not be possible to render a sophisticated
explication de texte of a poem that concludes
"It was domestic thunder,/ The color of spinach. Popeye chuckled and scratched/
His balls: it sure was pleasant to spend a day in the country."
No wonder Ashbery is widely thought of as dauntingly "difficult"—or, in some
camps, as something of a literary hoaxster.
It would be a shame, though, if this prevented curious addressees from picking
up his oeuvre.
Being difficult, after all, is not the same thing as being incomprehensible.
And the truth is that Ashbery's oeuvre is still very much invested in his
addressee's pleasure—more so than many supposedly "approachable" poets.
Where Shall I Wander is an often delightful and arresting mishmash of battily
comic poems and coded reflections on his days as part of what became known as
"the New York School."
Like much of Ashbery's poetry, it is challenging in a strangely inviting way
A few Griceian tips, then:
First, bear in mind that Ashbery's subjects are big ones, so don't get
frustrated by what may seem vague.
Second, trust yourself. Make sure to stay receptive to the farcical comedy in
Ashbery’s oeuvre, which often arrives out of nowhere.
Third, Ashbery's most famous rhetorical ambiguities—the odd, nonsensical
language, the ever-shifting array of pronouns, the abrupt shifts in diction—are
not totally without a centre. He considers his poems to be a kind of "organized
chaos." Imagine the poems as a series of different self-revising,
self-interrupting voices—the different voices we use to talk to ourselves in
our own minds (incantatory, exhortatory, scolding, disgusted, delighted,
genial, nonsensical) that belong to the different characters we carry around in
our own heads. Notice, too, that Ashbery frequently substitutes an unexpected
word for a familiar one—"the bee's hymn," say, rather than "the bee's hum."
Ashbery, who cut his teeth on the surrealists and the Dadaist poets—Tristan
Tzara, Guillaume Apollinaire—as well as Elizabeth Bishop and Wallace Stevens,
is trying to renovate a language that to him seems exhausted and cliché-riddled.
Fourth, don't be confused by all the pronouns encountered in a single poem—the
procession of shifting "you," "we," and "I" that is a hallmark Ashbery tactic.
Traditionally, the different pronouns in a lyric poem are important because
they fill in the latent narrative, helping you figure out whether the person
being addressed is a lover, a daughter, the self, etc. But in Ashbery the
pronouns are generic rather than specific. The "we" is an expression of the
poet's flickering sense of solidarity with his fellow citizens, a stand-in for
what he takes to be participants in capitalism: those who love its products
(the movies, T-shirts) but are suspicious of its processes; it represents the
cautious identification of the individual with his society. The "you" is often
a kind of companion self, a figure the speaker, in moments of feeling exiled,
can address himself to. A typical Ashbery move is to retreat from this
pluralistic "you" or "we" of identifying with others to an intensely singular
"you"—the you of the self suddenly and ruefully alienated from his
surroundings, the one we address in private.
For Popper’s guidelines to read Ashbery, see elsewhere.