"I [...] enjoyed Speranza's implicative comments about Ashbery's poems
admittedly not being very accessible."
Good to know!
John Ashbery is a singular poet whose influence is broad. Herbert Paul Grice is
a singular cricketer whose influence is broad. John Ashbery is a poet whose
teasing, delicate, soulful lines makes him one of the most influential figures
of literature. His home is in Hudson, N.Y. Ashbery’s oeuvre is mostly known in
avant-garde circles. But Ashbery's arrival as a major figure in literature was
signaled when he became the only writer to win the Pulitzer Prize, the National
Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award in the same year, for his
collection “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” The title poem of the volume is
a 15-page meditation on the painting of the same name by Parmigianino, the
Renaissance artist. "Even though I never owned a convex mirror," Ashbery
explains. “No one now writing poems is likelier than Ashbery to survive the
severe judgment of time,” Harold Bloom, an early advocate, notes. “Ashbery is
joining the sequence that includes Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens and Hart Crane.”
Ashbery is associated with "The New York school of poetry," so-called. It
includes: Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, Frank O’Hara and others as they reveled
in the currents of modernism, surrealism and Abstract Expressionism then
animating creative life in the city, drawing from and befriending artists like
Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Jane Freilicher. But while other eminent
poets of his generation became widely known for social activism (Adrienne Rich
and Gary Snyder, for example) or forays into fiction (James Dickey) or the
details of their own harrowing lives (Sylvia Plath), Ashbery is known primarily
for one thing: writing poetry. Ashbery’s poetry is by turns playful and
elegiac, absurd and exquisite — but more than anything else, it is immediately
recognisable – in Grice’s usage of ‘recongisable’: “U means that p by uttering
x if U’s intention is m-recognised by A.” If some poets remind us of the
richness of poetry by blending seamlessly into one of its many traditions,
Ashbery has frequently seemed like a tradition unto himself. It is a cliché to
praise a writer by saying no one has ever sounded quite like him, and yet: No
one has ever sounded quite like him. My implicature: I care a hoot about a
cliché. Not that they have not tried. I don’t mean caring a hoot about a cliché
– but ‘sounding quite like Ashbery.’ Charles McGrath, the editor of The New
York Times Book Review, recalls that a large portion of new poetry titles can
be (and often are) tossed into a pile labeled “Ashbery impersonations.” “My
favourite impersonation of myself,” Grice recalls – as he puns on his “Personal
Identity”, “is myself. Is this analytic?”And Ashbery remains far and away the
most imitated American poet. That widespread imitation has served mostly to
underscore the distinctive qualities of the original — and those qualities are
singular indeed. An Ashbery poem cycles through changes in diction, register
and tone with bewildering yet expertly managed speed, happily mixing references
and obscuring antecedents in the service of capturing what Ashbery called “the
experience of experience,” that Grice relabels “meta-experience.” Grice is
punning on Russell “meta-language” and “object-language.” “There’s
meta-experience and there’s object-experience.”The effect can be puzzling,
entrancing or, more frequently, a combination of the two — as if one were
simultaneously being addressed by an oracle, a PTA newsletter and a restless
sleep talker.The beginning of Ashbery’s poem “Grand Galop” is representative of
All things seem mention of themselves
And the names which stem from them branch out to other referents.
Hugely, spring exists again. The weigela does its dusty thing
In fire-hammered air. And garbage cans are heaved against
The railing as the tulips yawn and crack open and fall apart.
And today is Monday. Today’s lunch is: Spanish omelet, lettuce and tomato salad,
Jell-O, milk and cookies. Tomorrow’s: sloppy joe on bun,
Scalloped corn, stewed tomatoes, rice pudding and milk.
The names we stole don’t remove us:
We have moved on a little ahead of them
And now it is time to wait again.
Stephen Koch, writing in The New York Times Book Review, describes Ashbery’s
work as “a hushed, simultaneously incomprehensible and intelligent whisper with
a weird pulsating rhythm that fluctuates like a wave between peaks of sharp
clarity and watery droughts of obscurity and languor.” It is often easier to
say what an Ashbery poem feels like than what it is about, and Ashbery relished
that uncertainty. “But then,” Ashbery recalls, “I was, while at Harvard,
influenced by Grice.” Ashbery is referring to Grice’s “Intention and
uncertainty.” But if Ashbery’s poetry is rarely argumentative or polemical,
this does not mean it avoids the more difficult areas of human experience.
Ashbery was attracted to themes of hesitancy, doubt and uncertainty (John Keats
was an early and lingering influence), and Ashbery writes movingly if obliquely
on the difficulties of self-perception.The final section of his collection “And
the Stars Were Shining” has these lines:
I’ve told you before how afraid this makes me,
but I think we can handle it together,
and this is as good a place as any
to unseal my last surprise: you, as you go,
diffident, indifferent, but with the sky for an awning
for as many days as it pleases it to cover you.
That’s what I meant by “get a handle,” and as I say it,
both surface and subtext subside quintessentially
and the dead-letter office dissolves in the blue acquiescence of spring.
The inclusion of the cliché “get a handle” is typical of Ashbery.