15 March, 2010Issue 11.5Poetry

Email This Article Print This Article

It Had Meant To Be Sublime

Stephen Ross

foerJohn Ashbery
Carcanet, 2009
160 Pages
ISBN 978-1847770899


The planisphere is a flat, circular star chart used to calculate the position of the stars and constellations. It is also the title of John Ashbery’s most recent collection of poems, his 24th overall and his 12thsince 1991. Reserving judgment, for the moment, on the poems themselves (always a good idea with Ashbery), one can safely say that Planisphere is his most exotic book title in years—possibly his best since Hotel Lautréamont (1992).

Yet, as readers have long known, Ashbery’s poem and book titles are about as trustworthy as a snake-oil salesman: you pay for one thing, you usually get another. This certainly obtains with Planisphere, a collection of poems which, aside from its frequent inducement of starry-eyed bafflement, has almost nothing to do with star charts or outer space. This sort of misdirection is, of course, one of the hallmarks of the “Ashbery experience.” “So call it untitled”, Ashbery writes in a poem titled “Zero Percentage”:

don’t imagine you’ll be let off the hook:
The title will find it as surely
as a heat-seeking missile locks on
an asteroid. Down below, armies
and oceans of taxis will squawk unfeelingly.
The title always wins.

Here, a “planispherical” theme seems to be peeking through: we are in outer space; the poem is an asteroid; the title is a heat-seeking missile; the poet is…the space ship? God? Soon enough, these hermeneutic parlor games lose steam. Our interpretive designs on Ashbery always prove futile. His elusively non-allusive titles always win.

And yet, maybe there is a grand planispherical theme to be teased out here after all. For Ashbery is like a kind of spaceship, or, even better, like Hal 9000, the evil computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Reading his last few decades’ work, one has the disquieting sensation of communicating with a chatty, superhuman intelligence stocked with endless stores of information, taking us on a possibly malign journey through space and time. Of course, we all remember what happens to Hal at the end of the movie: Dave frantically pulls him apart, circuit board by circuit board, as Hal inanely croons “Daisy Bell”. And so readers and critics have delighted in attempting something similar with Ashbery, whom they have long suspected of linguistic treachery.

Ultimately, this strained analogy might seem like a roundabout way of proposing that Ashbery has entered a period of decline. But in fact, to speak of Ashbery’s “decline” almost certainly overstates the matter; indeed, all signs point to the opposite of a decline, at least in productivity. He continues to win awards and has published more than half his books since turning 60. It would be far more accurate to say that over the past 20 years he has settled into a recognizable late style, characterized—with the exceptions of the book-length Flow Chart (1991) and Girls on the Run (1999)—by rapt, bathetic, funny, distracted, thinly charged lyrics glued together with a kind of user-friendly surrealist logic. In this sense, the late style differs from the earlier and middle styles only in its thin charge.

This is not to dismiss Planisphere—or the last two decades’ worth of writing—but simply to observe that Ashbery has found a reliable way in old age of continuing to do, in perhaps attenuated form, what he does best: to dramatize the way the mind moves among ideas without bothering with the ideas themselves. Accounts of Ashbery’s late work, as of Bob Dylan’s “Never-Ending Tour”, might be mixed, but we are no less grateful that these song-and-dance men are still out performing.

And in any event, Ashbery’s signature Cheshire-cat wistfulness continues to glimmer behind everything he writes. The hardest passages to digest in Planisphere are not those that mislead us but those that seem to tell the truth. One would prefer not to take Ashbery at his word when he tells us, “This is how my days,/ my nights are spent, in a crowded vacuum / overlooking last year’s sinkhole” (“Spooks Run Wild”), or when, commenting on old age, or fame, or anything else, he writes, “It had meant to be sublime, but hell was / what it more specifically resembled” (“Planisphere”).

As with all of Ashbery’s previous collections, one inevitably reads Planisphere opportunistically, alert to those not infrequent moments that shimmer with the prospect of a revelation. “That’s the whole point, as I understand it”, he writes in “Boundary Issues”:

Each new investigation rebuilds the urgency,
like a sand rampart. And further reflection undermines it,
causing its eventual collapse. We could all see that
from a distance, as on a curving abacus, in urgency mode
from day one, but by then dispatches hardly mattered.
It was camaraderie, or something like it, that did,
poring over us like we were papyri, hoping to find one
correct attitude sketched on the gaslit air, night’s friendly takeover.

Or consider the following passage from “Uptick”:

To come back for a few hours to
the present subject, a painting,
looking like it was seen,
half turning around, slightly apprehensive,
but it has to pay attention
to what’s up ahead: a vision.
Therefore poetry dissolves in
brilliant moisture and reads us
to us.
A faint notion. Too many words,
but precious.

At this point, it would be tempting just to quote the dozen or so other passages in Planisphere that partake of a similar lyric splendor and end on a high note. But that would be to give a laughably unbalanced impression of this volume’s contents, and of Ashbery himself. Indeed, Planisphere is a grab-bag of classic Ashberyan tricks, trademarks, and gimmicks: there are a few collages, a poem with double-columned stanzas (not distinct from each other, however, as in his remarkable “Litany”), proliferating indefinite pronouns, throwaway titles (“Um”, “For Fuck’s Sake”, “The Seventh Chihuahua”), a winsomely pedantic resume of a 1930s film about the Tower of London starring Boris Karloff, and, of course, distortions of the English poetic tradition (“So we’ll go no more a-teething”, he writes in “Um”, infantilizing Lord Byron’s paean to lost youth, “So we’ll go no more a-roving”). Like his 1997 volume Can You Hear, Bird, the poems in Planisphere appear in alphabetical order.

Rather than try to end on an artificially high note, then, let us end on a note of semi-detached realism. Here are the final lines of “Semi-Detached”, a condensed account of what it often feels like to read Ashbery:

You’ll never be more agitated than you are now,
at this insurpassable moment. I, on the other hand
am cool for the time being. Such is my creed.

Stephen Ross is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at St John’s College, Oxford. Stephen is the editor-in-chief at the Oxonian Review.