Collected Poems (1956-1987)
Library of America, 2008
This past October, the Library of America released John Ashbery’s Collected Poems (1956-1987), making him the first living poet to be “canonised” in the series. It is a fitting honour for a man whose decades-long reign as one of the high priests of the contemporary American poetry scene has always been something of a paradox. Having received nearly every major award for achievement in the humanities, he continues to incite considerable debate as to whether his poems “mean” anything at all. To read an Ashbery poem with the intent to explicate in the traditional sense is to make a daring, perhaps foolhardy, leap of semantic faith.
Yet, wading through the 989 pages in the Library of America volume—comprising the poet’s first 12 books and 65 uncollected poems—one begins to hear a distinct Ashbery “voice” in one’s head, a not unpleasant experience, as many readers have discovered. It is a voice by turns philosophical, chatty, oracular and buffoonish, like a poetic Frankenstein’s monster animated by Wallace Stevens’s brain, W.H. Auden’s heart, Edward Gorey’s eyes and Daffy Duck’s hormones. Gradually, one becomes accustomed to this voice and to its chosen subjects, some disarmingly familiar and others weird in the extreme.
In these poems, we find mountains, rivers, trees, waves, diagrams, night and the weather alongside convex mirrors, clepsydras, hygrometers, Rumford’s Baking Powder, Van Camp’s Pork and Beans and just about any other imaginable foodstuff, tchotchke, cultural reference or scientific implement. To help orient us within this bizarre world, Mark Ford, the volume’s editor and an Oxford alumnus, has appended a modest critical apparatus and a chronology of the poet’s life.
John Ashbery was born in 1927 and grew up in the farm country of upstate New York, near Lake Ontario. He lived with his grandparents for much of his childhood and developed an early passion for painting, aspiring to be a surrealist painter. But by the time he arrived at Harvard in the late 1940s, he had abandoned his painterly ambitions to focus on poetry, which he began to publish in The Harvard Advocate. As an undergraduate, he met Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara, close friends and later collaborators in the so-called “New York School” of poetry, as well as other luminaries like Robert Creeley, Donald Hall, Robert Bly and Richard Wilbur.
Ashbery’s first breakthrough came in 1956 with the publication of his debut volume, Some Trees, selected by W.H. Auden as the winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize. Around this time, he moved to France on a Fulbright grant, and ended up staying there on-and-off for nearly a decade, publishing in 1962 his second and arguably most experimental book, The Tennis Court Oath, and making his living as a translator and art critic. He returned to New York City in 1965 and over the next decade published three more volumes, notably Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), which won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award and made his reputation. Championed both by influential critics like Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler and by the avant-garde elite, his star has been on the rise unabatedly for the past 30 years. His Selected Poems first appeared in 1985, complemented in 2007 by Notes from the Air, a selection of his last 20 years’ work. He has also published several books of prose.
Ashbery’s craft and stylistics, protean as they are, emerge in the first stanza of the first poem in the Collected Poems, “Two Scenes”:
We see us as we truly behave:
From every corner comes a distinctive offering.
The train comes bearing joy;
The sparks it strikes illuminate the table.
Destiny guides the water-pilot, and it is destiny.
For long we hadn’t heard so much news, such noise.
The day was warm and pleasant.
“We see you in your hair,
Air resting around the tips of mountains.”
Many of the later Ashberian trademarks appear in this early passage: personal pronouns lacking antecedents, references to weather (“The day was warm and pleasant”), water and rivers (“the water-pilot”), meteoric objects that streak by joyfully and offer some kind of lesson or illumination (“The train comes bearing joy; / the sparks it strikes illuminate the table”), generalised and personified landscape imagery (“Air resting around the tips of mountains”), and free use of abstractions (“Destiny guides the water-pilot”), to name a few salient examples. Most of these elements reappear in astonishing form in one of Ashbery’s finest poems, “Parergon” (meaning “a subordinate or accessory work”) from The Double Dream of Spring (1970). It begins “We are happy in our way of life./ It doesn’t make much sense to others,” and it concludes with a quasi-mystical vision that blazes by then disappears into the night:
As one who moves forward from a dream
The stranger left that house on hastening feet
Leaving behind the woman with the face shaped like an arrowhead,
And all who gazed upon him wondered at
The strange activity around him.
How fast the faces kindled as he passed!
It was a marvel that no one spoke
To stem the river of his passing
Now grown to flood proportions, as on the sunlit mall
Or in the enclosure of some court
He took his pleasure, savage
And mild with the contemplating.
Yet each knew he saw only aspects,
That the continuity was fierce beyond all dream of enduring,
And turned his head away, and so
The lesson eddied far into the night:
Joyful its beams, and in the blackness blacker still,
Though undying joyousness, caught in that trap.
Again, we find unspecified first person pronouns, unusual use of abstractions (“Our entity pivots”), and the shimmering, river-like “lesson,” but to what purpose? As good postmodern readers, we can hold onto and cherish beautiful lines like: “Yet each knew he saw only aspects,/ that the continuity was fierce beyond all dream of enduring” without hoping to fathom their meaning. In his long prose poem “The System,” he writes, “But now to have absorbed the lesson, to have recovered from the shock of not being able to remember it, to again be setting out from the beginning—is this not something good to you?” Ashbery scatters hundreds of similarly portentous yet ambiguous statements or “lessons” throughout his work, like so many bread-crumb trails that hearten us but never really lead us out of the forest of confusion.
Of course, there is a long and distinguished history of “forests of confusion” in the western poetic tradition. We may travel a very long way (650 years!) from Dante’s “dark forest” to Ashbery’s Some Trees, but there has never been an end to writers searching for clearings of understanding within the dense thicket of reality. Meanings swim in and out of our view, while we try to make sense of them as best we can, Ashbery tells us repeatedly.
Having been anointed one of the major voices of our age, Ashbery forces us to consider tradition’s continuity, its past, its present, and its future trajectory. Throughout his career, he has submitted high-, middle-, and lowbrow culture to his artistic whims (collage, pastiche, occasional use of difficult forms like the sestina, the list goes on and on), sometimes with a savage touch, at others with a mild one. He pillages from the classics alongside the best of the Modernist marauders, but he also introduces an unprecedented element of zaniness, married to a penchant for baroque complexity and abundance. This leads to a readerly experience of over-stimulation, disappointed expectations, and unsettledness that is particularly well suited to late 20th and early 21st century audiences, for whom “postmodern” notions of bathos and fragmentation have become commonplace and expected. Ashbery speaks to us by fulfilling our expectation that, to be modern, a poet must be not only difficult but also “incorrigibly plural”, to borrow Louis MacNeice’s phrase.
In “Syringa,” a putative Orpheus and Eurydice poem, he writes: “Its subject/ matters too much, and not enough, standing there helplessly/ while the poem streaked by, its tail afire, a bad/ comet screaming hate and disaster, but so turned inward/ that the meaning, good or other, can never/ become known.” The familiar action depicted here, as in “Two Scenes”, “Parergon”, and many other poems, is that of objects or insights swimming into view and capturing our attention, then dashing off, only to be replaced by something else. It is the Ashberian leitmotiv, receiving its most sustained articulation in the 13-page “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”, which takes Parmigianino’s eponymous painting as an index of the soul’s experience of reality: “The time of day or the density of the light/ Adhering to the face keeps it/ Lively and intact in a recurring wave/ of arrival. The soul establishes itself.” We might call this process, this “recurring wave of arrival”, Ashbery’s “philosophy of life” (the title of a later poem), without fearing too much that our judgments are off base or overly bold. Such judgments offer us a momentary stay against confusion. But only a momentary one, as Ashbery has a peculiar ability to cast off catch-all labels as readily as he invites them.
Hunting for Ashbery’s poetic influences is in many ways a frustrating affair, since among major contemporary poets he has the greatest knack for making the familiar unfamiliar. But several examples do come to mind, such as the last line of “Parergon”, “Though undying joyousness, caught in that trap,” which inverts the ominous-then-hopeful sentiment of birds descending “downward to darkness, on extended wings” at the end of Stevens’s “Sunday Morning.” By a similar token, the phrase “all was ominous, luminous,” from the poem “Errors”, seems to chime with Elizabeth Bishop’s famous phrase “awful but cheerful”, from “The Bight.” Intimations of Eliot abound, mostly in the form of Prufrockian “You and I’s” and passages like “Here I am then,/ continuing but ever beginning/ my perennial voyage, into new memories” (from “The Skaters”), which mingles “Gerontion” and Four Quartets.
The Greek lyric poet Archilocus wrote, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Ashbery is both a fox and a hedgehog. He knows many things (and even more words), but is also fixated on one big thing: human consciousness. It is this schizophrenic quality that makes him so hard to pigeonhole and so fascinating a character. Is he a maximalist transcendentalist, in the tradition of Emerson, Whitman and Stevens, as Harold Bloom would have him, an avant-gardist and post-surrealist extending the bounds of (non)sense, is he a caricature of both, or is he a great original? If we asked Ashbery this question, he would simply shrug and then quote his poem “Houseboat Days”:
Is so hospitable, taking in everything
Like boarders, and you don’t see until
It’s all over how little there was to learn
Once the stench of knowledge has dissipated. . .
Stephen Ross  is reading for an MSt in English Literature at St John’s College, Oxford, and writing a thesis on John Ashbery and landscape.