Just do it: John Ashbery collected

Collected Poems 1956-1987, John Ashbery (1043pp, 19.95, Carcanet)

To begin plainly, the book brings together twelve volumes to 1987, ordered chronologically by American publication, plus 65 uncollected poems from periodicals and anthologies to 1990.

When I bring my single volume Ashberys off the shelf I am reminded they are mostly Carcanet-published, following USA publication, and not infrequently a new Ashbery poem appears in, say, the London Review of Books
. But has there been influence here? Is there a British Ashbery trail during this more than half a century?

My far from comprehensive instinct says not. My instinct is also that following him is likely only to result in parody. This not least because it is rarely clear what he's doing. It's his genius, uniquely mindful.

The paradox deepens with the thought, how widely shared I don't know, that this first Collected
seems to me of more significance than almost any other book of poetry published this year.

Of his many individual books, even my few of them show what uniformity results from bringing them into a Collected
. At an extreme, The Ice Storm here collected as 4 pages, I have as a 29 page tiny pocket edition (Hanuman (Madras/New York 1987); The Vermont Notebook is here as originally set, but in the original edition (Black Sparrow Press 1978) the prints by Joe Brainard are much starker; Flow Chart will come into the next Collected, and will not reproduce the impressive original document (Carcanet 1991) accommodating its long lines.

As is well known, and is clear from the 14 page biographical Chronology in this Collected
, Ashbery was drawn early in his life to both the visual and musical arts. His poetry is surely best read with this in mind, and the separate books (and his poems in the LRB with plenty of space around them) are playful with form.

As format matters, so do the years between. Having on one's shelf (eventually) 'all of Ashbery' in let's say two volumes, is very different from discovering his latest during the years of its making; and there hangs in the air still the critical reception book by book; few poets have become such markers of both themselves and of us. Someone will write a book on this - too much to embark on here, even were I able.

In September 1986, John Ashbery gave a reading at the Shrewsbury Poetry Festival. About a hundred people attended, including Michael Longley and Lydia Pasternak Slater, who had their own festival spots. I am reading from the notes I made in a copy of his Selected Poems
(Carcanet 1986). In response to a question whether he used dreams, he said, "My poetry is somewhat like dreaming to me." When asked who he thought he was writing for, I have his reply as best as I could note it, that his poetry "is speaking to someone .... in general, to myself, .... the you in my poetry is generally rather vague."

He began by reading the first three poems in the Selected
, which are now in the Collected as the first two and the fourth, from Some Trees. He read 'Glazunoviana', 'He', (from The Tennis Court Oath) 'Thoughts Of A Young Girl', then jumped the years towards the back of the Selected (from A Wave): 'At North Farm', 'The Songs We Know Best' and 'Landscape (After Baudelaire)', and as he read the last of these I noted where he broke or ran over the lines. He observed the breaks to line 3,

           Dreaming, I'll hear the wind in the steeples close by
then at line 4 he read

          Sweep the solemn hymns away. / I'll spy )

without a break into line 5,

         On factories from my attic window, resting my chin

and observed the break there, although the phrase carries over to the next line. [I am indicating / as a spoken break, ) as a run on]. For the rest of the poem he read sometimes over the lines with no break, sometimes where he might have done this he didn't. And given what is on the page, this makes musical sense. But then why write

       How sweet to watch the birth of the star in the still-blue )
       Sky, through mist; / the lamp burning anew )
       At the window:.......

At the time it bothered me and perhaps it does still, although if I imagine visually the poem as he read it, it would be all over the place. So there's an orderliness of fracture, which may be of the essence.

After that he read from loose sheets. My only personal note was that when he was introduced (I didn't know by whom) as "the greatest since Lowell in America", I noted that 'he sat there with this going on over his head, like a bent-over Cheshire cat, as if suffering it gracefully'.

Whereas the selection from A Wave
concluded the Selected, in the Collected it ends at page 787 with April Galleons to follow to 884, followed by 99 pages of Uncollected.  He's a poem machine.

Whether or not to run over the lines when reading aloud (or indeed silently) might have some bearing on why if you opened the book about a third of the way in, you'd say it was prose. This is, one might suppose, the defiantly titled Three Poems
(1970), made up of 'The New Spirit', 'The System' and 'The Recital'. From the second page of the latter,

     But as the days and years sped by it became apparent that
     the naming of all the new things we now possessed
     had become our chief occupation; that very little time
     for mere tasting and having of them was left over, and that
     even these simple, tangible experiences were themselves
     subject to description and enumeration, or else they too
     became fleeting and transient as the song of a bird that is
     uttered only once and disappears into the backlog of
     vague memories where it becomes as a dried, pressed flower,
     a wistful parody of itself.

My response to these Three Poems
, in which more poem-like lines are there, just a few, was both to be reminded of Orwell and to be tearful. Orwell was harsher, Ashbery says it wistfully and thereby more painfully.

And maybe whether it looks like prose or is in broken lines is neither here nor there if it sings, given that singing is recitative as well as aria, lament as well as party-piece. And handling this big book is to be handling a gift.

Reviews come cheap, poetry the hard way. And I wonder what can be said about
Ashbury really. Here is Paul Hoover, editor of Postmodern American Poetry (Norton 1994):

      It is important to note the leading role of John Ashbery in
      American poetry since the publication of Self-Portrait in a
      Convex Mirror
(1975) [m p.427ff in the Collected]. Perhaps
      because his poetry expresses the period's most important
      theme, indeterminacy, Ashbery has become a "major poet"
      in an age suspicious of the term. Indeterminacy means the
      conditionality of truth, as well as the compositional tendency
      away from finality and closure; the text is in a state of unrest
      or undecidability.

I think, yes, this is about right; but then I think, what does 'the period' mean, who is it, in what sense does indeterminacy then or now govern or pervade our lives? Is there shared ultimate truth? Has Ashbery responded to or in some degree caused
this 'how things are'? And how does poetry do this?

Or one might ask, how does poetry do

Ron Silliman is allocated a prose contribution to that book. In 1986 Silliman had edited an anthology, In the American tree
; no Ashbery apart from a passing mention in the introduction:

      Alternative uses of method were visible in Mac Low's work, in
      John Ashbery's The Tennis Court Oath
[p.43ff in the Collected]
      and Ted Berrigan's Sonnets

If I recall the mood accurately, back in Shrewsbury, Ashbery was saying in effect, 'Well, I just do it'. Already in 1973 Robert B. Shaw (American Poetry Since 1960
, Carcanet), had, in a chapter on the poet, written,

     Ashbury's own family romance hovers uneasily in all-but
     -repressed memories of childhood; his family-romance-as
     -poet attains a momentarily happy resolution in The Double
     Dream of Spring
[p.181ff in the Collected], but returns darkly
     in Three Poems
[p.247ff]. Ashbery is a splendid instance of
     the redemptive aspect of influence-anxiety, for his best work
     shows how the relation of the precursor is humanized into the
     greater themes of all human-influence-relations, which after
     all include lust, envy, sexual jealousy, the horror of families,
     friendship, and the poet's reciprocal relation to his
     contemporaries, ultimately to all of his readers.

Another way of saying, on his behalf, 'Well, I just do it'.

The planetary gossip game - or more soberly the information society - is so much more open and pervasive pler now than in the 1970s. Key in 'Ashbery poet gay' into Google and there are pages of it. Perhaps the personal intrudes more now into artistic work as presented-investigated, than it did ever before 'in history'. John Ashbery has done, it seems to me, an interesting thing, and I wonder how conscious it has been, in writing both to convey and elude meaning, to weigh this with that, that with something else, without conclusion. No special interest group, literary or social, sexual or critical, has been able simply to claim him. Whether he intended this in his, 'Well, I just do it', I've no idea.

He has succeeded in keeping his poetry not his life in the running for attention, no easy thing to do, and for decades.

What is private-public really, public-private, interior and out-there ? If Ashbery is to be significantly compared and contrasted, who is to be with? Or the question, what does living now
mean? What does living mean? Are these poetry's questions? Surely yes, but setting out to answer them directly is a cul-de-sac, straight out or 'as poem'. My sense of Ashbery is, he has lived with the impossibility, the hurt and joy, and has played with it. And where he has most consciously done so, the poem is not good for a second reading; second and third readings (isn't this the history of religious practice?) embed the curiosity of the questions.

Ashbery tends most usually to be spoken about for his saying-not-saying, his movement-away-towards or however it might be said in shorthand, his mode. If we think of him as a late disciple of both Donne and Whitman - yes, but why sing like them in the age of the telephone and the daily news sheets? Perhaps he has played the bones and the spoons and become suddenly aware what he was doing,... I don't know. Perhaps a dancer is what he is, the sort who stands still and yet stays out of clear focus. And whose steps matter.

          David Hart 2010