The poetry of John Ashbery seems “difficult,” I think, only because we normally ask of literature vast simplifications. “Don't,” we are always saying to literature, “don't, whatever you are, be as complex as life, as liberty, or as the pursuit of happiness!”
We want literature to be a little difficult, of course, but only a little. A “fruitful ambiguity” flatters us because we have no problem distinguishing paired pears from pared apples, even in a tureen of strawberry jello. And though allegory seems heavy-handed, we enjoy a sophisticated chase through any symbolist jungle. We like always to outsmart the detective, recognizing far sooner than he does that the man in the aquamarine beret is not only not the axe murderer who wore two left shoes but almost certainly the missing husband of the disturbingly uncommunicative but beautiful Tasmanian heiress with whom each and every one of us has fallen desperately in love.
Literature normally flatters and reassures us. It shows us what we all want to see: a pattern, no matter how faint, superimposed on chaos. But when the pattern wavers, vanishes, reemerges briefly in the form of a nervous mirage, and then once and for all dissolves into universal jumble, we are likely to become uneasy and possibly cantankerous. “This is difficult stuff,” we find ourselves remarking, meaning by difficult either outrageous or representational or both.
The writer who presents normal human experience in something like its everyday complexity really is outrageous. He offends us by not making rational the incomprehensible or, at best, confusing overlaps of routine existence. Instead, he diagrams such stuff as shifting personality, “I” trying to adjust constantly to all the personalities that are busy adjusting to “me.” Or he notices how easily anyone projects – frequently with disastrous consequences – his “I” into every “you” in sight, and sometimes fatally fails to do so.
Such a writer, representing the real world of the mind, finds meandering thought his true vocation. What goes on in, say, the assembled heads of an audience during a poetry reading – even one by John Ashbery – would look, if mapped, something like neighboring three-dimensional termite nests. Not just dreamers, daydreamers, and the senile find listening difficult; all of us, most of the time, play peek-a-boo with the stuff that comes in at the ear. We respond to what we hear, all right, but as well to the secondary stimuli that bombard us through eye, nose, mouth, and rubbing skin. For literally everything starts us thinking. We listen to the world most obliquely, tuning in and tuning out, dancing a sort of intellectual buck-and-wing as “private” thoughts commingle quite irrationally with the flow of public phrases that endlessly spill from a jabbering world.
What I am arguing, of course, is that Ashbery's “difficulty” is more imaginary than real. Ashbery presents, often in meticulously representational detail, a normal man's way of apprehending – though not of voicing – reality. In doing so, he is drastically unconventional, since the normal man devotes a great deal of time and energy to disguising the way his mind works. What comes out of the normal man's mouth or typewriter barely resembles the wanderings of his hit-or-miss mind: the ill-heard sentences, the details of his own observation that he can't help notice (the flick of an eyelid, the shadow of a smile), all of the colors, smells, and textures that intrude on him and that, perhaps heroically, he pummels into submission whenever he attempts to “communicate.” We are all hard-working citizens of this kind, much of the time either oblivious to the ways in which our heads work or so disturbed by those ways as to pretend we have no heads at all.
Like Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and others who have attempted to ensnare the psychic processes we so carefully suppress, Ashbery focuses hard on the way the mind deals with the random stuff that drifts into it. But much more recklessly than Stein or Joyce, he offers us not the thoughts of a “persona” – an Alice B. Toklas, for instance, or a Stephen Dedalus – but the abruptly bare phrases that float through his own mind. Or at least he does his best to give us the illusion that those phrases are what he presents, phrases not just obscure but for almost everybody else in the world totally baffling. By drawing on private materials, he forces us to have the strange experience of roaming through someone else's head. “The landscape looks familiar,” we are likely to think as we read through a non-sequeturing Ashbery poem, “but the hands are the hands of Esau.”
Once in a while, he lets us glimpse the process at work:
I know that I braid too much my own
Snapped-off perceptions of things as they come to me.
They are private and always will be.
Later on in “The One Thing That Can Save America,” the poem I am quoting from, these private matters surface again as “the quirky things that happen to me.”
Such things, central to the private energy that fuels the public poem, are its root force, but they clutter up the surface, effectively entangling us in Ashbery's own business of living. Nevertheless, because purely private material can in no conventional way be simplified by literary analysis, we are much better off experiencing it directly rather than trying to “understand” it. “Understanding,” which most readers of poetry have been trained by generations of text-analyzers to believe is the object of reading, can be extracted from an Ashbery poem only at the price of distortion. What Ashbery offers instead is a chance for us vicariously to engage in something that might be called experiential process; he immerses us in a shifting context of unpredictable “meanings” and tones that constantly qualify everything that has gone before them yet that also are constantly qualified by everything that has been established.
Consider, for example, what happens to the phrases from “The One Thing That Can Save America” when they are reinserted back into the poem. Because paraphrase in Ashbery is not just unnecessary but almost impossible, I'd like to quote the whole poem, pausing now and then to watch shifting tones operate rather than trying to make translations of phrases that are perfectly transparent once they are extracted from the amalgam of the poem. What I hope to reveal is nothing more than technique: Ashbery's method of confining meaning to the page, his system of preventing us from discovering a “solution” to something that is in fact not a riddle but an unsolvable work of art.
This poem that I have arbitrarily made central to my discussion is also almost literally central (pages 44 and 45 of an 83 page book) to Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, and centrality seems initially to be its central concern. The tone at the beginning is neutral, though phrases like “flung out” and “knee-high” force the reader into momentary minor adjustments of physical point of view:
Is anything central?
Orchards flung out on the land,
Urban forests, rustic plantations, knee-high hills?
Are place-names central?
Elm Grove, Adcock Corner, Story Brook Farm?
As they concur with a rush at eye level
Beating themselves into eyes which have had enough
Thank you, no more thank you.
Punning transformations of Stony Brook Farm and Alcott into Story Book Farm and Adcock seem to put us either somewhere in the nineteenth century, on a thruway or possibly on railroad tracks, or in contemporary childhood; but the tone skids away from neutrality and toward a very clear petulance (“enough/Thank you, no more thank you”) as abruptly aggressive (and concurring) places threaten to gang up on the speaker:
And they come on like scenery mingled with darkness
The damp plains, overgrown suburbs,
Places of known civic pride, of civil obscurity.
Again point of view has shifted, for we discover that the scenery we had accepted as “real” scenery is in fact only something that is “like scenery” in a commingling community of jumbled “civic pride” and “civil obscurity.”
The second stanza brings us to the first flat assertion of the poem:
These are connected to my version of America
But the juice is elsewhere.
“The juice,” of course, is private – most likely private energy – and though the tone is again close to neutral flatness (with perhaps an ironic pun on breakfast orange juice), it soon shifts into a rhapsodic lyricism:
This morning as I walked out of your room
After breakfast crosshatched with
Backward and forward glances, backward into light,
Forward into unfamiliar light,
Was it our doing, and was it
The material, the lumber of life, or of lives
We were measuring, counting?
A mood soon to be forgotten
In crossed girders of light, cool downtown shadow
In this morning that has seized us again?
Both time and perspective tangle in this complex scene that is like a painting but not one, a structure built of crosshatching glances in which the observing “I” is both active participant (and consequently invisible) and yet made visible to his own “downtown” memory as he thinks back on the significant moment. Able to be both in and out of the scene, he has no difficulty in translating the streaks of intersecting glances into an invisible pattern superimposed on light and then considering whether this might indeed be how “the lumber of life” is made significant (measured, counted). “Lumber” achieves a lovely suspension, forcing us to recollect the woods of the first stanza – orchards, forests, plantations, Elm Groves, overgrown suburbs – while at the same time anticipating the “crossed girders of . . . shadow” that will threaten to obliterate the morning that “has seized us again.”
Crosshatched by glances, by planes of light, by simultaneously interior and exterior points of view, and by triple time (the opening statement's “objective” time, the “morning,” and the “downtown” memory of morning that soon will be forgotten), the stanza's multiple perspectives present an “it” impossible to define and also impossible not to respond to.
It is at this stage of the poem's development that another neutral statement returns us to the passages I have already quoted.
I know that I braid too much my own
Snapped-off perceptions of things as they come to me.
They are private and always will be.
Where then are the private turns of event
Destined to boom later like golden chimes
Released over a city from a highest tower?
The quirky things that happen to me, and I tell you,
And you instantly know what I mean?
What remote orchard reached by winding roads
Hides them? Where are these roots?
By now something of the pattern of the poem should be apparent. Stanzas begin in something like a neutral tone, the speaker addressing what at least seems to be a general audience. But that audience, as in this third stanza, soon breaks up into quite private components – as well as the obvious “public” one. Here, for example, the generalized you becomes both Ashbery talking to himself and, by the seventh line, Ashbery addressing the “you” of the breakfast scene. His subject, however, is privacy and its relationship to something as public as music, painting, and poetry. And the abrupt shift in tone of the “golden chimes” question lets him move from a neutral tone to something very different that might capriciously be called oracular. It also lets him distance his material by shifting his statement into a totally different rhetoric – in this instance, a rhetoric that sounds suspiciously like that of Wallace Stevens. Critics – and, for that matter, uncritical readers – have a hard time with allusive echoes of this sort. That is, they can never be quite certain if the shifted “voice” is parodistic, referential, or perhaps even deferential. And there is always, of course, the possibility that the passage may not be deliberately allusive at all – simply a matter of Ashbery unintentionally sounding like another writer. (The last lines of the second stanza, the passage about the “crossed girders of light, cool downtown shadow/In this morning that has seized us again,” sound to my ear a good deal like passages in Hart Crane's poetry; and I am reasonably certain that the final stanza's “All the rest is waiting/For a letter that never arrives” is supposed to trigger us into an “Ah, T.S. Eliot!” response. But what seems to me a Crane allusion may very well not be one; and my conviction that the last stanza's Eliot-like passage is a deliberate allusion tempts me – irrationally – to see the “roots” line of the third stanza as a faint echo of “The Waste Land.”) Such “problems” seem to me ultimately unimportant. That is, the echo or even the possibility of echo is enough to distance the tone. Similarly distancing, the questions at the end of the third stanza force the opening stanza's “real” orchards into a metaphoric role. And distancing through language alone, language that is both serious and a little funny, “quirky things” have some kind of relationship to historical, geographical, and literary landscapes. Yet in spite of all these distances, “I” – both as person and as writer – exist and exist in a present definable America.
The last stanza seems to me to reassemble the scattered tones of the first three. But precise meaning is carefully evaded. The poem is not a sermon:
It is the lumps and trials
That tell us whether we shall be known
And whether our fate can be exemplary, like a star.
All the rest is waiting
For a letter that never arrives,
Day after day, the exasperation
Until finally you have ripped it open not knowing what it is,
The two envelope halves lying on a plate.
The message was wise, and seemingly
Dictated a long time ago.
Its truth is timeless, but its time has still
Not arrived, telling of danger, and the mostly limited
Steps that can be taken against danger
Now and in the future, in cool yards,
In quiet small houses in the country,
Our country, in fenced areas, in cool shady streets.
“We” has by this time become an amalgam of Ashbery, the “you and I” of the second stanza, and the reader that the poem is addressed to; it will become explicitly in the last stanza America. But each “we” also exists separately.
Like the “quirky things” of the third stanza, the “star” that our fate might lead us to in the final one strikes me as rather funny – a cross between the theatrical and heavenly kind. And indeed the ominous Eliotic letter that “never arrives” also takes on faintly qualities when it is ripped open, its contents discovered to be “wise,” its message warning of danger and of the steps that might be taken against that danger now and in the future both known and unknown.
Like much in Ashbery, funny and serious material coexist in one context. The tone of the last stanza grows, however, increasingly “concerned”; and if we never find out what the mysterious undelivered message is that we manage symbolically not to receive, to tear up, and yet to assimilate, we do have some sense of its urgency. It has something, of course, to do with the need for fences and for the walls of small houses, for places that are “cool”; but its “meaning” - like the “meaning” of the poem – is available only to the person who apprehends it without “knowing what it is.”
I offer this non-reading of a poem as a demonstration of technique, but I hope it is also a warning against false readings. Happily, David Shapiro, whose own sense of the integrity of poetry is very strong, approaches Ashbery neither as New Critic nor as historian, but as fellow poet who himself works in modes similar to those used by Ashbery.
He asks us to recall what most of us have casually assimilated: the literatures of America and Europe, an awareness of the history of music and painting, a little knowledge of classical and contemporary physics. Using these tools, he helps us explore not the “meaning” of Ashbery's poetry but the sensibility that gives rise to it and the cultural context of which it is a most vital part.
His approach is unorthodox. His insights into the ways a major contemporary poet organizes his art give us a sense not just of the techniques used by John Ashbery but of a structural aesthetic drawn on by a whole generation of poets, painters, musicians, and sculptors.
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I like this Foreward's claims regarding Ashbery's poetry. For instance, that "Ashbery's 'difficulty' is more imaginary than real." With one reservation, I also like the notion that "Ashbery presents, often in meticulously representational detail, a normal man's way of apprehending – though not of voicing – reality." And "Ashbery focuses hard on the way the mind deals with the random stuff that drifts into it." That's helpful.
But I don't agree with all of Mr. Unterecker's assertions. For instance, that Ashbery "offers us not the thoughts of a 'persona' – an Alice B. Toklas, for instance, or a Stephen Dedalus – but the abruptly bare phrases that float through his own mind." It could be that, in his day, Mr. Unterecker was better than I am at reading minds, but I doubt it. Also, the poem Mr. Unterecker chose to peruse has such a level of complexity that it becomes a bold claim, one which Mr. Unterecker shows no interest in establishing, to say that this is "a normal man's way of apprehending - though not of voicing - reality." And finally, Mr. Unterecker claims that the meaning of "The One Thing That Can Save America" is available only to the person who apprehends it without knowing what it is. Maybe that's true and maybe it isn't, but from what Mr. Unterecker has written in his Foreward, I'm not willing to accept this as a conclusion. To me, such a conclusion mystifies rather than clarifies Ashbery's work. To be fair, Mr. Unterecker offers this Foreward as an example of a "non-reading of a poem as a demonstration of technique" with the hope that "it is also a warning against false readings." But it seems to me an opportunity to talk about technique more if one begins by crediting Ashbery with having invented a persona with which to implement the various techniques. I was hoping for more from one who wrote a reader's guide for the poems of W.B. Yeats.