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Review of Selected Prose
James Longenbach, The Boston Review, Summer 2005:Previous review of 'Selected Prose'... Next review of 'Selected Prose'... To the 'Selected Prose' page...
Poetry Is Poetry
"Frank O'Hara's poetry has no program and therefore cannot be joined," said John Ashbery after the death of his close friend in 1966. "It does not advocate sex and dope as a panacea for the ills of modern society; it does not speak out against the war in Vietnam or in favor of civil rights; it does not paint gothic vignettes of the post-Atomic age." Writing these sentences was like waving a red cape: the bull appeared in the form of the poet Louis Simpson, who accused Ashbery of "sneering at the conscience of other poets." Sneering? Ashbery is our greatest master of tone, and over the last 50 years he may have smiled or smirked, prodded or provoked, but he has never sneered. His Selected Prose reprints a half century of occasional writing--tributes, introductions, reviews, obituaries--but we will need to wait for his collected prose in order to have easy access to Ashbery's plainspoken response to Simpson: "Poetry is poetry. Protest is protest. I believe in both forms of action."
Everybody wants to be useful. But in the mid-'60s, Ashbery had returned to the United States after a decade spent living in France: there he had written in blissful ignorance of a literary culture that tended to distrust pleasure as a schoolmaster punishes indolence. Now it's 40 years later, and America hasn't changed much in this regard, and neither has Ashbery. No one truly committed to the act of writing poems--weighing syllables, calibrating lines, negotiating syntax--could avoid feeling a little embarrassed by the need to declare that poetry is poetry.
Shyness, awkwardness, embarrassment: no poet has made these tones more available in poetry. And in doing so, Ashbery has reached back to what he thinks of as a golden age of American literature, a moment when nobody would have needed to champion poetry as poetry, a moment "when our poets who counted as poets spoke different dialects of a common poetic language." The grand stuff of literary history had happened while Ashbery was living in France--Ginsberg's Howl, Lowell's Life Studies --but Ashbery remained unmoved by it. When he returned to New York, American poetry seemed to him oppressively dour. And if it wasn't dour, it was hysterical. And if it managed to be playful, it seemed sanctimonious, tilting at the windmills of the establishment. The lost world of American poetry, the world of Ashbery's youth, seemed much more attractive. What he missed was a particular tone, "a peculiar, resonant blend of metaphysical poetry and Surrealism which was typical of much of the advanced poetry written in American in the late thirties and forties--a fine and touching moment in our poetry that has so far been little noticed by subsequent critics." What was that tone?
Listen to the early Randall Jarrell--not the snappy critic but the unrelievedly tender poet who opened Ashbery's ears to the music of shyness:
Some of the sky is grey and some of it is
The leaves have lost their heads
And are dancing round the tree in
The cat is in it.
A smeared, banged, tow-headed
Girl in a flowered, flour-sack print
Sniffles and holds up her last bite
Of bread and butter and brown sugar to
Butter the cat's paws
And bread the wind. We are moving.
The bread-and-butter sense of this poem is liberated into what Elizabeth Bishop called the surrealism of everyday life: the leaves have lost their heads, the cat's paws are buttered. Even a simple line like "the cat is in it" feels spooky, mysterious, its pronoun untethered from the tree to which it refers. But while the poem is in motion, its tone is steady: these lines are not spoken by the little girl, but we feel that her sensibility guides them, allowing us to glimpse the secret, tentative confusions of a child's inner world.
Listen to late Ashbery, the Ashbery who in Where Shall I Wander is writing the most moving poems of his long career.
One afternoon as golden stalks
grazed the parlor of heaven
the little shift in tone came
to tell us to get ready
to pack enough things
The blue sky screeched
A father and his daughter were passing
the corner of the delighted crescent
Don't blame me for the stuff of change
I too carry
I think I'll go in now
The polar bear might travel hundreds of
miles across the ice hunting for
The tone of these lines is Ashbery's signature. Unlike Jarrell, he does not psychologize his waywardness, associating the movement of the language with the movement of a child's mind. But his quiet, unquestioning acceptance of the world as it comes to him is like a child's: the poem feels deferential, restrained, embarrassed by its own capacity for wonder. The tone is variable enough to include moments of disgruntlement ("Don't blame me"), but the poem's pieces are stitched together by a sensibility that does not confuse submission with resignation, shyness with powerlessness. When the golden stalks graze the parlor of heaven, he packs his bags. He enjoys the little things glimpsed along the way, the blue sky, the delightful crescent. And if he feels a little confused, a little out of sorts, he'd rather not admit it; he knows we feel that way too, and he trusts us to recognize his feelings. A "little shift in tone" can tell us everything. After all, he's talking about mortality, the same thing he's been talking about for 50 years, except that it feels imminent now, around the bend.
The passage of time has always been Ashbery's great subject: his poems embody the sweet bewilderment they also describe. But in retrospect, the poems from his first great period sound nervous about their own vulnerability. Throughout the volumes of the mid-'60s to mid-'70s (The Double Dream of Spring, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Houseboat Days), a whiff of preachiness accompanies the moments as they pass.
This was our ambition: to be small and
clear and free.
Alas, the summer's energy wanes
A moment and it is gone. And no longer
May we make the necessary
arrangements, simple as they are.
This need to allegorize the poetry's waywardness was long gone by the time Ashbery wrote the great volumes of the last ten years (Wakefulness, Girls on the Run, Chinese Whispers). In its place we find a giddiness that makes the earlier work sound, by comparison, downright stodgy.
Before retiring the general liked to play a
game of all-white dominoes,
after which he would place his nightcap
distractedly on the other man's
crocheted chamber pot lid.
Subsiding into a fitful slumber, warily he
of the giant hand descended from
like the slope of a moraine, whose fingers
were bedizened with rings
in which every event that had ever
happened in the universe could
sometimes be discerned.
The point of these two passages is pretty much the same, but in these lines from Chinese Whispers Ashbery merely celebrates the passage of time, leaving the commentary behind. His sentences have become longer, his diction more wild, his syntax more elegantly attenuated. But while the poems are showier, they seem less like the work of a show-off. They sound happy to exist, rather than needing to be justified.
Rogue moments of tenderness often break through the merriment of Ashbery's recent books, no sooner glimpsed than gone. In contrast, his achievement in Where Shall I Wander is to have found a way to allow the quieter tone to structure entire poems, even the entire volume. The book's title is lifted from Mother Goose ("Goosey goosey gander, / Whither shall I wander?"), and every poem is infused with the combination of tenderness and menace that we associate with nursery rhymes. In "Coma Berenices," a parody of a family's annual Christmas letter, Ashbery's ear for the comic potential of inarticulate writing is acute, but our master of tone is not sneering. The exquisitely turned awkwardness of these sentences is a vehicle for emotional transparency:
'Mary and her little boy came by in August. We went to the fish place but I'm not sure if Lance (her boy) appreciated it. Children have such pronounced tastes and can be quite stubborn about it. In late September a high point was the autumn foliage which was magnificent this year. Casper took me and his wife's two aunts on a "leaf-peeping" trip in northern Vermont. We were near Canada but didn't actually cross the border. You can get the same souvenir junk on this side for less money Max said. He is such a card.
November. Grief over Nancy Smith.'
Where Shall I Wander is a book not of grief displayed or avoided but of grief inhabited in a plainly matter-of-fact way, as if it were a familiar side dish at every meal. "We went down gently / to the bottom-most step," says the book's opening poem. "There you can grieve and breathe, / rinse your possessions in the chilly spring." There's no illusion that our youth was free of grief, and neither is there any longing to be rid of it. Nostalgia has always been a temptation for Ashbery, and I suspect that the giddiness was a way to stave off the sentimentality of the longing. Now Ashbery is a poet of the present, and he requires fewer defenses:
For now it's enough that this day is over.
It brought its load of freshness, dropped
and left. As for us, we're still here, aren't
There's a touch of earnestness in that final question. For if Ashbery is no longer looking backward with a sense of loss, he is looking ahead, and he's not sure what he sees. "I'm probably the only American / who thinks he's going to heaven," he declares in "Novelty Love Trot." The poem turns immediately--as the poems of Where Shall I Wander always do--to a bittersweet reflection that belies the self-assurance: "A waft from a tree branch / and I'm in heaven, though not literally." The book is chock full of pleasant summer breezes, but the wish to live plainly in the present feels plausible because the book is also conversant with doom. Heaven is everywhere around the corner, and so is hell. Beware "the shadow that comes when you expect dawn," Ashbery advises in the opening poem, and throughout the book, he flirts with a Yeatsian rhetoric of disaster: "The passionate are immobilized." Finally, however, fear is to be trusted only as much as desire. When "a real emergency arose," says Ashbery in "O Fortuna," "all hell didn't break loose, it was like a rising psalm / materializing like snow on an unseen mountain."
Wallace Stevens once remarked that while we possess the great poems of heaven and hell, the great poems of the earth remain to be written. Ashbery is writing those poems with the lack of fanfare that earth, for better and worse, deserves: listen to the sweetly awkward hymn to the present with which "The Weather, for Example" concludes:
We are here to tell
some account of ourselves,
grab favor from the circumcised gods,
be replaced in a box or pocket.
Nothing coming from that quarter,
it behooveth the moth to inch back
against the steep Atlantic tides.
I found us here with toy fish,
choice clusters of whatever
you desired in time past,
Rushing in to fill the unthinkable well.
Ashbery has many imitators, but they have all gone after the giddiness or the preachiness. No one else can write like this, and we are lucky to be alive at the same moment as the one person who can.
Stevens, Yeats, Hardy--only a handful of poets continued after a long career to write great poems until the day they died. Eliot petered out early. Wordsworth went soft. Keats didn't have the chance. Ashbery published his first book of poems in 1953; the first essay in his Selected Prose was originally published in 1957, and its account of Gertrude Stein feels irrepressibly fresh. We may have to wait a long time for Ashbery's collected prose, given that we are still waiting for Eliot's. In the meantime, Where Shall I Wander affords us the rare opportunity to observe not only a poet writing at the peak of his powers--Ashbery has done that before--but a poet still discovering how to sound like himself.
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