One of the more Ashbery-by-numbers poems in Commotion of the Birds, John Ashbery’s latest collection, is called “Late-ish”. Like almost all of Ashbery’s work since the 1990s, it attempts to climb the sheer exuberant banality of spoken language to reach heights of pathos that should be entirely inaccessible. Ashbery navigates by an ear that remains weirdly impeccable:
The girl in the green ski chasuble
hasn’t yet graduated from radio school.
Let’s pay attention.
Consonants and vowels touch each other softly, even as, meaning-wise, these sentences seem like things you overhear when not really paying attention, or that emerge from your brain when double-screening, each with 7 tabs open. The joys, in the poem, which I think are representative of a large amount of “Late-ish” Ashbery, are the sheer love of linguistic incongruity and, underneath it, the clash of meaning-making communities this incongruity represents. In the middle of the poem, we encounter these lines, for example:
Crowds of older people who would read this
happily, willingly, then walking into night’s embrace,
then kiss, “to turn you out, to turn you out!”
“Turn you out” can mean to remove from office or position, but it has also, more recently, acquired another meaning, which is (sort of) to broaden someone’s sexual horizons (through deeds, rather than words). Is Ashbery, when he uses this phrase with both meanings in mind, addressing the crowds of older people? The poem, featuring a “suburban demonstration”, might be read as vaguely connected to a political feeling, but it isn’t really. The poem doesn’t cohere into an attack on unworthy office holders, but merely suggests that these attacks, like sexual awakening, are part of life. Whatever multitudes the poem contains, they aren’t quite marching on the White House, even if the office of president appears to crop up all the time in this collection, which must mostly have been written in the run up to the 2016 election.
Is Ashbery then mocking his audience for reading the poem and trying to find stateliness, or the state of the nation? Is he mocking the pomposity you might read in a phrase like “night’s embrace”? Is he trying to teach old dogs new tricks? Perhaps here a clash between meanings might be a way of reckoning with the passage of time, a sort of meditation on transience, on the meanings we attach to words, and to our own experience, which manage to escape us as life moves along. “I seen enough of these samples along the way”, the poem ends, and we might feel that this comment is a mirror of the lack of fulfilment in the poem, and in our lives, which we are unceremoniously turfed, or turned out of, too soon.
Still, as I said, the poem seems to me to be conventional. It has the shape that much of Ashbery’s recent poetry has. It’s a short, disjunctive lyric, which tries to contain as many registers as possible. Underneath the zaniness is the deep awareness of the transience of the world. But I passed over “Late-ish” as I passed over many poems in Ashbery’s absurdly prolific late career output, with a sort of gentle “uh-huh”. I’m dwelling on it, because I want to consider what it is that has often struck me as a loss in the later work of Ashbery, and also how closely related it is to his genius. The problem isn’t exactly that “Late-ish” is too disjunctive or nonsensical; one of the most astounding poems in the new collection ends with the line “workmen install the fish vulgate” (“The National Debt”). Ashbery’s refusals to cohere are the most extreme form of what seems to me to be a heroic attempt to avoid congealing. As he ages, Ashbery has come to find an insistence on transience—which may have seemed like an assault on form or well-madeness when he was younger—fitting him, as if his public persona has finally grown into his poetry’s baggy clothes. Critics have found his work to be, and my reading of “Late-ish” above is complicit in this, a profound meditation on the passage of time, befitting the work of an author garlanded with every award, widely acknowledged as the greatest living Anglophone poet.
But what seems to matter about Ashbery’s poetry to Ashbery is not so much the passage of time, as the celebration of that which cannot be preserved. W.B. Yeats’s famous line about the bundle of accidents and incoherencies that sits down to breakfast being different from the poet, is a distinction Ashbery collapses. In “Daffy Duck in Hollywood”, from 1979, for example, a zany poem which does not quite resemble the zaniness of the late work, but seems to share its impetus, these lines seem to speak to Ashbery’s continued priorities:
No one really knows
Or cares whether this is the whole of which parts
Were vouchsafed—once—but to be ambling on’s
The tradition more than the safekeeping of it. This mulch for
Play keeps them interested and busy while the big,
Vaguer stuff can decide what it wants–what maps, what
Model cities, how much waste space.
Ashbery is a universalist. Rather than narrate his singular life, he presents us with a bundle of accidents that we can all enjoy. One way of reading the late work, by no means an authoritative one, but one that I like, is as an attempt to find the smallest, least meaningful unit of experience, the most outrageous and insignificant thing whose passing we would mourn. It seems like a refusal to be political, a refusal to make things matter to a collective narrative. Poems in this collection want to spend their time on “like the president’s toenail, unperforming!” “The big/vaguer stuff”, as “Daffy Duck” would have it, is less important than the “mulch for play”. Like the generations of leaves are the races of man, says Homer, to which Ashbery responds by preferring mulch to narrative. In this sense it returns to being political; it’s a brilliant refusal, both of the imbecility of the current American empire, and of those who mourn the passing of a time when the president at least read Augustine as he immolated children. I’m not arguing this is deliberate on his part; Ashbery’s is a poetry of life, and not of the things we are willing to die for.
The problem comes, when it comes in some of the late poetry, when I begin to wonder if the accidents, the flashes and the joys, are dependent on the memory of a narrative that Ashbery no longer gives a new reader access to. In “Daffy Duck”, and in hundreds of his poems, there is a pressure of thinking, perhaps best found in the way the syntax moves that makes the strangeness of his own poetry more remarkable. It seems so reasonable, so true, and so beautiful that one line follows another that we have to think about why it doesn’t make sense to us, and in so doing, to think about what might be more important than making sense in any conventional sense. When I read my favourite poems by Ashbery, it’s as if someone else’s thoughts had been overlaid on mine, and I can see what thinking looks like, but not what it depicts—a palimpsest of blueprints becoming abstract art. I don’t mean that it’s serious and stately. It’s still incredibly funny, but something else is at stake too. With the memory of this in mind, I can dedicate my time to a poem like “Late-ish”, but the best Ashbery poems compel you to take why they don’t want to be taken seriously seriously.
This may seem like a slightly late moment in the review to state that Commotion of The Birds is, in my opinion, the best of all of Ashbery’s recent work. I’ve been urging friends to read it for weeks. Still, it felt helpful to me to begin with the problems making any account of the late Ashbery presents. How to differentiate echt Ashbery from what I take to be Ashbery phoning it in is relatively clear, I think, from the collection’s title poem:
It’s good to be modern if you can stand it.
It’s like being left out in the rain, and coming
to understand that you were always this way: modern
wet, abandoned, though with that special intuition
that makes you realize you weren’t meant to be
somebody else, for whom the makers
of modernism will stand inspection
even as they wither and fade in today’s glare.
This poem doesn’t mean all of its straightforward, comprehensible sentences, but the connectedness of it, the cadence, commands you to pay attention to their funny way with meaning, to the way the line break “makes you realize you weren’t meant to be”, in a good way. It’s harder, though, to articulate how to differentiate “Late-ish” from “Hillbilly Airs and Dances”, say:
Like we were all
gone together at some point,
something one could understand,
to confront you with our country,
vintage treat, village street.
The other is all in mind.
In world aesthetics, a bundle in the straw.
Just as in “Late-ish”, the bathos/pathos line is blurred. The use of strange idioms and clichés is there too. There’s the vague presence of the political world in “to confront you with our country,/ smoking cloud”, but this one feels like it’s under more pressure. Not more coherent, just more connected. It seems more justifiable to surrender your mind to this poem, to take it at its word that our seriousness is part of the problem. It felt right to me to surrender to many poems, among the highlight of which were “Tales from Shakespeare”, “The National Debt”, “Die Meistersinger”, “Written with a Ballpoint”, “Mean Particles”, “Land Mass”, “The Gay Philosopher”, “Evening and Elsewehere”, and several others. There are poems here that I think will stand comparison with anything else Ashbery has written. Their imperious silliness, and their seriousness about the life we surrender to the silly things we consider serious, like the decline of the American empire. Take a poem from the early days of Ashbery’s late style, 1992’s “The Decline of the West”:
What! Our culture in its dotage!
Yet this very poem refutes it,
springing up out of the collective unconscious
like a weasel through a grating.
I could point to other extremities, both on land
and at sea, where the waves will gnash your stark theories
like a person eating a peanut. Say, though,
that we are not exceptional,
that, like the curve of a breast above a bodice,
our parabolas seek and find the light, returning
from not too far away. Ditto the hours
we’ve squandered: daisies, coins of light.
When the poems land, as this one does, and as so many of his new poems do, their private incoherence in the face of public stupidity, seem to me to make Ashbery more important than ever.
It’s possible that everyone has late Ashbery poems they like more than others, and that this says more about their temperaments than it does about Ashbery. Coleridge, when he was defending the Lyrical Ballads from cultivated opinion, wrote:
The same general censure has been grounded by almost every different person on some different poem. Among those, whose candour and judgment I estimate highly, I distinctly remember six who expressed their objections to the Lyrical Ballads almost in the same words, and altogether to the same purport, at the same time admitting, that several of the poems had given them great pleasure; and, strange as it might seem, the composition which one cited as execrable, another quoted as his favourite.
Maybe Ashbery is a more truly universal poet than I give him credit for. What Commotion of the Birds reminds you is that without Ashbery there would have been no one to demonstrate to you how beautiful our incomprehension of the passage of time can be, and how beautifully our banalities can illustrate this:
Then suddenly it’s forty years later,
and I was like “Holy Shit!
I’m just happy to be alive!”
Hugh Foley  has recently finished a DPhil in English.