Stride Magazine -

  Selected Poems by John Ashbery
[Carcanet Press, 2002]
Following the publication of John Ashbery’s early collected poems, The Mooring of Starting Out, and several new individual collections from the poet now turned 70, Carcanet re-release his Selected Poems in a new edition. When it was first published, this was the book that introduced me to Ashbery’s work and I’m pleased for the re-release, because my original copy has all but disintegrated through use.

Selected Poems contains poems up to and including Ashbery’s 1983 collection A Wave. Some recent commentators have noted that the poet’s programme is complete and, given that 46 years have transpired since the publication of his extraordinary first collection, Some Trees, they may be right. But Ashbery himself has always fought against attempts to ‘invent a programme’ for himself, not least because he might ‘be forced to follow it.’ This witty, wise irony is perhaps Ashbery’s most distinguishing feature and is elsewhere expressed in poetic lines, ‘The whole thing might not, in the end, be the only solution’ (from ‘Soonest Mended’). To reveal further ironic humility the poet also writes, ‘The tiresome old man is telling us his life story’ (from ‘The Skaters’). So what is it exactly in Ashbery’s first eleven collections, selected from here, that holds the attentions of dedicated readers’ and continues to draw in new ones?

In a past life, a friend first made me realise Ashbery’s strengths in exemplifying Wittgenstein’s notion of ‘the expression of non-logical truths’; or, as James Potter has described Ashbery’s signature, ‘...a somewhat surreal non-sequitur bounded on either side by rapid cuts, low-slung montage and time-delayed gags bereft of both set ups and punchlines.’ Add to this Ashbery’s mastery of oneiric narrative and the philosophic undercut and you’re getting close to describing some of the salient surface features of this work. What I’m reminded of in re-reading the early Ashbery, is the sheer joy that works both with and against the irony and the philosphising. Take ‘Two Scenes’, for example, from Some Trees (1956):
          We see us as we truly behave:
          From every corner crosses a distinctive offering.
          The train comes bearing a joy’

That joy and surprise never leaves: joy in idea, joy in language, the joys of love and, despite the obvious difficulties of some of his more innovative poems, a very human joy, ergonomic, modest, well-tempered and good-humoured. Some Trees gathers spare lyrics (‘The Grapevine’) and long expositions (‘The Instruction Manual’) alike. These are poems of revelatory delight, imbued with the tensions between formality and informality, and all achieved with a great humour, ‘In a far recess of summer / Monks are playing soccer.’ Some Trees contains sonnets, prose poems and those now famous sestinas. In writing about form, Ashbery told the New York Quarterly, ‘The really bizarre requirements of a sestina, I use as a probing tool, rather than as a form in the traditional sense… rather like riding downhill on a bicycle and having the pedals push your feet. I wanted my feet pushed into places they wouldn’t normally have taken.’ Ashbery’s understanding that formal constraint – whether traditional or based on linguistic experiments such as those of the OuLiPo – necessarily forces the writer into new territories and modes of writing, is what Michael Donaghy has called ‘that serendipity provided by negotiation with a resistant medium’. It is also what makes him a serious but accessible poet – he exploits the tension between tradition and newness with continually energetic surprise.

Ashbery’s fascination with form took new turns with his second collection The Tennis Court Oath (1962). Much of this radical experimentation with collage and cut-up remains so preferable to much that has followed it in pale imitation. Ashbery’s great virtue here is never to pursue experiment for its own sake. There always seems to be a purpose, to explore ‘the big themes’: his philosophic meditations into the nature of self, love and knowledge. This is all delivered with that refreshingly undercut humour, ‘I only slipped on the cake of soap of the air / And drowned in the bathtub of the world’ (from ‘Thoughts of a Young Girl’). Add to this that each of Ahbery’s collections contains a poem of lasting (I mean ‘historic’) nature. For me, ‘How Much Longer Will I be Able to Inhabit the Divine Sepulcher’ in The Tennis Court Oath is one of the writer’s finest. (I’ve been trying to teach it to my daughter; she gives up on the bit about ‘the moss’ and I’m going to have to wait years before the passage about ‘sperm flushed down toilets’). These lines are as immediate to me as the Daffodils are to readers of Wordsworth:

          ‘How much longer will I be able to inhabit the divine sepulcher
          Of life, my great love? Do dolphins plunge bottomward
          To find the light? Or is it rock
          That is searched? Unrelentingly? Huh. And if someday...
          As if reading had any interest for me, you...
          Now you are laughing.
          Darkness interrupts my story.
          Turn on the light.

In Rivers and Mountains, I find similar pleasures in the long poem ‘The Skaters’, with its (never unpleasantly) knowing irony, ‘That was a good joke you played on the other guests. / A joke of silence’. There’s a fascinating little line in this poem; the stunning contraction of ‘The day was gloves’, which not only speaks of the day being cold enough to wear gloves, but is also richly layered in allusions to types of glove (real and metaphoric) none of which are mentioned. This style is imitated often, but it is Ashbery’s own mode. For a writer who says so much, and writes so prolifically, such perfect selectivity in ‘what not to say’ teaches a great deal. ‘The Skaters’ is poem where we actually witness Ashbery making his discoveries through language: ‘Spangled with diamonds and orange and purple stains, / Bearing me once again in quest of the unknown. These sails are life itself to me.’ We are reminded of the ‘train loaded with joy’ of Some Trees.

Ashbery re-examined the contemporary possibilities of traditional form in his next collection, The Double Dream of Spring, with long free verses, sonnets, prose poems and the astonishing sestina ‘Farm Implements...’. This surreal but poignant sestina functions through the semantic transpositions of some strange end words, including the sublime ‘spinach’. In The Double Dream of Spring we also see a deepening of Ashbery’s philosophy, in the meditative subjectivity of ‘Parergon’:

          ‘We are happy in our way of life.
          It doesn’t make much sense to others. We sit about,
          Read, and are restless. Occasionally, it becomes time
          To lower the dark shade over it all.
          Our entity pivots on a self-induced trance
          Like sleep.’

This conversational tone and quotidian detail is quintessential Ashbery (something which may be detected in one of his finest shorter poems, ‘Late Echo’, from the later collection As We Know: ‘Alone with our madness and favorite flower / We see that there really is nothing left to write about...’, what Ashbery goes on to call, in the same poem, ‘...the chronic inattention of our lives’). This poetic is a loaded mixture of direct statement (from poetry’s most unreliable and ironic narrators, it must be said), with dream, ennui, existential depth and a lyric insistency that draws you along like a wave. These threads are explored fully in Ashbery’s Opus Magnus, the Pulitzer Prize winning collection ‘Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror’, wherein this acutely sad meditation on the nature of love appears:

          ‘But we know it cannot be sandwiched
          Between two adjacent moments, that its windings
          Lead nowhere except to further tributaries
          And that these empty themselves into a vague
          Sense of something that can never be known
          Even though it seems likely that each of us
          Knows what it is and is capable of
          Communicating it to the other.’

I turn to such passages of poetry still, to be picked up and transported I don’t know where, landing in some far off space of self-knowledge; understanding all ‘the big stuff’ and yet, when I look, there seems to be nothing there. Such paradoxes are Ashbery’s own – a very few other writers can do it convincingly too  (John Koethe and John Burnside both spring to mind) – but Ashbery’s paradoxes are inimitable. That’s another reason why this Selected Poems is still invaluable reading to old and new readers alike. In the same way that Dylan first as a songwriter, and Paul Muldoon later as poet, have reinvented the use of cliché; Ashbery reinvents the idea of abstraction (that vice so reviled by creative writing tutors and editors everywhere!) and bestows it with an almost mystical beauty. Throughout these poems I am haunted by the idea that this is ‘Everything about us that love might wish to examine’ (from ‘As We Know’).

When I began dipping back into this book to choose some excerpts for this review, I burnt my dinner and had to reassess the evening meal. Ashbery is like that. His work is a wave that picks you up and tumbles you to some strange shore, making you forget the real world and what you are doing in it; surfing you away on a mythic voyage. Sometimes you’re riding on the board, sometimes you’re in the breakers, and sometime it’s impossible to know what is water, what is sky, or what is firm beneath your feet. This is writing with the power of natural forces, and yet it is also a force of artifice, which Ashbery knows only too well – you mean, it’s only words! This dichotomy, among others, is what fascinates about Ashbery’s work. Here is the gap between world and word; between language and experience; between imagination, memory and self. Ashbery’s poems are, ‘The life that is not life, / A present that is elsewhere’ (from ‘As We Know’) or, to go back to the celebrated Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror: ‘...sandwiched between two adjacent moments.’

Which use of the wave as metaphor brings the reader to the final poems in this Selected Poems; those drawn from the 1983 collection A Wave. The title poem is a long piece of subjective introspection, handled with stunning changes of pace and depth, focussed upon the central notion: ‘The empty space in the endless continuum / Of time has come up. The space that can be filled only by you.’ A Wave is a tour de force in Ashbery’s oeuvre and remains, to my taste, one of the great long poems of startling metonymic depth. ‘The Ongoing Story’ is also worth noting as a poem par excellence of the philosophical undercut. It plays with a recurring theme in Ashbery’s work: the relative and sometimes conflicting authorities of different discourses, modes and languages:
          Or is this precisely material covered in a course
          Called Background of the Great Ideas and therefore isn’t necessary
          To say anything or even know anything? The breath of the moment
          Is breathed, we fall, and still feel better. The phone rings,

          It’s a wrong number...

Ashbery’s work has embraced experimentalism and fomalism; philosophy and comedy, film, music, art and popular culture and so much more. It laughs with sheer delight in the face of the utter slipperiness of language; how can it tie anything down at all? His poetry, as exemplified here, is performative in many senses, which draws me back to the first few words of Some Trees, those which say so much about Ashbery as a writer:

          These are amazing: each
          Joining a neighbour, as though speech
          Were still a performance.

Why is this re-release of his Selected Poems still relevant? Because, whether you are re-reading for the umpteenth time, or discovering for the first, John Ashbery is, in his own words, ‘like that marvellous thing you haven’t learned yet’ (from ‘The Skaters’).

          © Andy Brown 2003