Sunday, November 23, 2008

How to Read John Ashbery's Poems

In August of 1974, John Ashbery's poem 'Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror' was published in Poetry magazine. In 1975, a book of poems by Ashbery was published and titled after the 'Self-Portrait' poem. That book is famous for winning the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Edward Byrne writes in his blog of his experiences in the world of poetry during the mid-70s. It turns out that Byrne was a student of Ashbery's in 1975. Reading Ashbery's poems can be difficult.

In March of 2005, Slate magazine published an article titled 'The Instruction Manual: How to Read John Ashbery'. Here is an excerpt:


It is hard to talk concretely about Ashbery's poetry, because his subject is, so often, aesthetic consciousness—what he calls "the experience of experience." On the one hand, the poems have the dashed-off look and feel of pop culture-inflected postmodernism, inspired by the radical innovations of Dada and French Surrealism. On the other hand, at their heart is a kind of high Romantic yearning for wholeness: In a sense the poems are simply about being unable to give up that longing. At the center of an Ashbery poem isn't usually a subject (à la Philip Larkin) but a feeling (à la Jackson Pollock). That feeling is conjured up by the interplay between aesthetic conviction and amiably bland bewilderment; amid all the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life is the enduring hope that, as one speaker puts it, "at last I shall see my complete face." The best thing to do, then, is not to try to understand the poems but to try to take pleasure from their arrangement, the way you listen to music. It's only then, for most readers, that the meaning begins to leak through.

To read the full article, go to the Slate website.

More recently (Dec 8, 2008), the Christian Science Monitor ran a little review of Ashbery: Collected Poems 1956-1987. The review is helpful in understanding better how to read Ashbery's poetry. Here is an excerpt from that little book review:

Reading Ashbery involves the ability to make sudden shifts between slangy and literary language, between rational analysis and irrational intuition, and to fuse seemingly unrelated images from paintings, film, and daily life. His poems seem to narrate stories – but they are stories constantly interrupted by paradoxes and contradictions, all part of a storytelling sensibility that loves unsolved and unsolvable mysteries.

Call this volume of Ashbery’s work a training guide for imaginative calisthenics.

For the full article, go to the Christian Science Monitor website.

Another help in reading Ashbery's poems is to begin by saying 'Let me understand Ashbery's poetics.' Generally, once a reader understands a poet's poetics, that reader can more easily 'unlock' the meaning of that poet's poems. What is poetics? Well, this Wikipedia entry can tell you better than I can. How to understand Ashbery's poetics better requires, I believe, an understanding of the situation of poetry within Yeats and Eliot - and then understand that Ashbery felt the need to create something extra-Yeatsian, extra-Eliotian if you will. Whereas Yeats and Eliot especially despaired over the lack of a coherent expression capable of including all of experience, Ashbery joyfully goes about his own project of creating poetry that acknowledges and embraces some of the more salient challenges of our times, consumerism and the formation of self being among them.

David Herd has written a book that should prove helpful as well in reading poems by Ashbery. Published by Manchester University Press, John Ashbery and American Poetry was reviewed in The Guardian (March 10, 2001) by Robert Potts. Here is the first paragraph from that review:

"I live with this paradox; on the one hand, I am an important poet, read by younger writers, and on the other hand, nobody understands me. I am often asked to account for this state of affairs, but I can't." This self-assessment by the American poet John Ashbery is fair and succinct. Much admired, winner of many prizes, stylistically over-influential, Ashbery has nonetheless provoked hostility and scepticism from uncomprehending readers. His poems slide through a variety of voices and styles with quickfire cuts between sensations, comments and events; sometimes the disruption of expectation is so frequent that it becomes easy for a sceptical or lazy reader to feel that the poems are nothing more than a random agglomeration of words, images, quotations and phrases.

Follow this link to read the full article.

Remember: only you can improve the audience for poetry.


"It is our goal to appreciate and improve our talents, to share our own work and to communicate the joys of poetry with others. Everyone's poetry is valued."
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5 comments:

Robert said...

"The best thing to do, then, is not to try to understand the poems but to try to take pleasure from their arrangement, the way you listen to music" is a nice way to frame it. To me, Ashberry seems to want to follow a line with the most unlikely next line, to constantly create surprise. Easier said than done. But even more remarkable is how the poem still coheres in its way.

mi said...

read slowly

Andrew Christ said...

Ashbery's stated goal was to create something that critics wouldn't even be able to talk about. He's come very close to that, I believe - if he hasn't actually achieved it. For me it's been helpful to read 'Self-Portrait' with my friend Jack. We read aloud, at our own pace, for two hours a week, discussing the poems as we go.

Anonymous said...

I think we should read JA the way we listen to music - no one ever asks of music - what does it mean?? That is the only way I think to get to it, I think - and then, things filter in: meaning, phrases, sounds, love etc.

Gold For Runescape said...

For me it's been necessary to study 'Self-Portrait' with my buddy Port. We study loudly, at our own speed, for two hours per 7 days, talking about the poetry as we go.

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