by Helen Vendler
Post date 02.25.05 | Issue date 03.07.05
Where Shall I Wander: New Poems
By John Ashbery
(Ecco, 81 pp., $22.95)
John Ashbery, in a youthful review of Marianne Moore, cited what he called the "almost satisfactory definition" of poetry given by the nineteenth-century French poet Banville: "[Poetry is] that magic which consists in awakening sensations with the help of a combination of sounds ... that sorcery by which ideas are necessarily communicated to us, in a definite way, by words which nevertheless do not express them." Poetry expresses ideas, the poet claims, but not by means of propositional statements. Instead it relies upon an underlying "sorcery" dependent on a combination of sounds (arranged rhythmically, needless to say) that awaken sensations. If the sentences of the poem were written differently, the evoked ideas would disappear.
Unlike many other "experimental" poets, Ashbery has resisted the notion that poetry need not communicate intelligibly; but he has also resisted tethering poetry to the expository flatness of the assertion of doctrine or ideology. Throughout his writing, he has taken risks to see how far he could go in transmitting, or even transferring, states of consciousness. "Poetry," he has remarked, "is not a stationary object but a kinetic act, in which something is transferred from somebody to somebody else." Ashbery's magnificent book-length work Three Poems is written in prose, but it so powerfully summons up the waves of successive states in human life--early bewildered depression, the intoxication of recognizing one's identity, the further intoxication in the discovery of love, the feared subsidence of excitement, the return of dullness, the restorative insight into compensatory wisdom, the buoyant effect of a new love--that at the end the reader feels like an actor borne along on strange flowing and ebbing tides, a character in an abstract plot that is reticent as to time, place, or person, but convincingly "real" as the experience is undergone.
Ashbery's experiments have not always succeeded. Not everyone was convinced that the dual streams of consciousness (two separate columns running parallel down the page) of "Litany" could really be read as one, or remembered well enough to modify each other. Even so, that fascinating labyrinth of abstract autobiography, full of stunning writing, at least gestured toward the notion of the bicameral mind. In yet other risky ventures, Ashbery has based his writing on the oral roots of lyric in nursery rhymes, riddles, spells, doggerel, and popular song: all reminders that the primordial lyric emphasizes the play of sound and rhythm. The title of Ashbery's new volume is another such reminder: although it may sound Romantic, it comes in fact from one of Mother Goose's more sinisterly comic rhymes. (I quote it here from Bartlett, although I learned the rhyme in childhood with Ashbery's American version of the second line):
Goosey goosey gander,
Whither shall I wander?
Upstairs and downstairs,
And in my lady's chamber;
There I met an old man who wouldn't
say his prayers;
I took him by the left leg
And threw him down the stairs.
The persons, the actions, and the locales in the nursery rhyme do what the ingredients of Ashbery's poetry do: they make irregular jumps from person to person, action to action, place to place, nonsense to violence. See, for instance, the jumps in the new poem called "Broken Tulips," which, originating in urban erotic life (but with absurd place names taken from Marlowe), pauses to note the (temporary) suspension of terror while "The cave thing" hides himself; sketches an animated Easter-rabbit cartoon of spring; echoes Hopkins on clouds ("Has wilder, wilful-wavier/Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?"); and subsides into a comically tenacious defense of human storytelling. Although "Broken Tulips" opens on the perplexities of sex, it leaps, in successive moves, to art:
A is walking through the streets of B, frantic
for C's touch but secretly relieved
not to have it. At Tamerlane
and East Tamerlane, he pauses, judicious:
The cave thing hasn't been seen again,
schoolgirls are prattling, and the Easter rabbit
is charging down the street, under full sail
and a strong headwind. Was ever anything
so delectable floated across the crescent moon's
transparent bay? Here shall we sit
and, dammit, talk about our trip
until the sky is again cold and gray.
This hybrid language of literariness and contemporary pop culture is Ashbery's native speech (as it is ours, too, whether we like it or not). But in the second half of "Broken Tulips"--after an initial joke about the TV crawl and a paradox on unwelcome longevity--the poem darkens. God's promise that the deluge will not recur has been broken, like the titular tulips, and the menacing rifle-telescope of night warns us that it will not long comply with our wish to live:
Another's narrative supplants the crawling
stock-market quotes: Like all good things
life tends to go on too long, and when we smile
in mute annoyance, pauses for a moment.
Rains bathe the rainbow,
and the shape of night is an empty cylinder,
focused at us, urging its noncompliance
closer along the way we chose to go.
What is to be gained by writing this way? In answer, we need only imagine the poem done conventionally: a first-person narrator evokes his erotic anxiety, his sense of spring, his feeling of taedium vitae, his foreboding of a failure of spring, and his fear of death. These topics are so worn one can hardly think of writing about them--and yet what else stirs feeling in our hearts? "Make it new"--Pound's old command--is still as talismanic as ever. Yet the trouble with superficial ways of making new is that they leave out the old. Ashbery keeps the old in--through allusion, echo, and the revival of perennial topics--and therefore can "communicate ideas" after all. He does so best by his ingenious images--from the Easter rabbit to the empty cylinder and the rained-on rainbow--and (as a poet once remarked to me) by his ever-fresh sense of the seasons.
Ashbery's new book is rich in grimly funny images of the dance of approaching death. He and his companion, in a form of Grand Guignol, are "walking the plank/of every good thing/toward the tank of carnivorous eels/singing, chiming as we go/into subtracted Totentanz"; farewell messages announce "sunflowers over and out,/ashes on the clapboard credenza"; and a man is "waiting to take tickets at the top/of the gangplank." "Novelty Love Trot" ends with the poet's companion fixing an absurd gourmet meal while the poet dryly complains of his perpetual loneliness and his recalcitrant work:
You are stuffing squash blossoms
with porcini mushrooms. I am somewhere else, alone as usual.
I must get back to my elegy.
onderful and sustaining as Ashbery's images are, tallying and making recognizable our own emotions, they are only one of the joys on offer in his poems. Outside of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, have there ever been comic opening lines like Ashbery's? The hands-down winner in Where Shall I Wander is: "Attention, shoppers." The loudspeaker messages in K-Mart are unavoidable subliminal tenants of our unconscious mind, but their grotesquerie is suddenly lifted into view by Ashbery's co-opting of them for his address to his readers. In a different but equally arresting vein, many of Ashbery's openings prophesy a coming catastrophe. The first line in Where Shall I Wander announces, "We were warned about spiders, and the occasional famine"; others assert gloomily (but comically, too, given the Yeatsian echo) that "The passionate are immobilized." These catastrophic bulletins are balanced by Ashbery's other preferred opening gambit, the ineffably bland beginning, often a joke on contemporary cult language:
I enjoy biographies and bibliographies,
and cultural studies. As for music, my tastes
run to Liszt's Consolations, especially the flatter ones,
though I've never been consoled by them. Well, once maybe.
Ashbery's linguistic imagination draws him not only toward allusion and echo, but even more strongly toward parody of this kind. The title poem of Where Shall I Wander is an extended prose poem parodying the diction of almost every American form of expression, oral or written--advertisements, manuals of instruction, bar talk, academese, the "poetic," children's verse, fashion babble. It is only by parody that the poet can make us really listen to what is bombarding us on every side, conceptually and verbally. Too long to be substantially quoted here, the poem glitters throughout its headlong progress with ridiculously incompatible linguistic adornments ("Heterophage, we come unblinking into the standing day"; "Wherever a tisket is available, substitute an item from column B, then return to the starting goal"; "geez I don't know the answer, if I did, you--"). As the poem ends, the speaker is one of two hosts who have bade farewell to guests at the dispersal of a party; he comments with complacent retrospection on the picture he and his companion made:
You wore your cummerbund with the stars and stripes. I, kilted in lime, held a stethoscope to the head of the parting guest. Together we were a couple forever.
This closing tableau embodies the peculiar affection-within-satire that is Ashbery's characteristic touch. His comedy owes a good deal to old movies, and the poses of his characters often call up their visual equivalents: here, the freeze frame gives us the cinematic united couple in evening dress, standing at their open door as their friends leave the house. The only way to see yourself accurately, Ashbery implies, is with the stereoscopic perspective of irony, to be aware always of the parodic potential of one's utterance and appearance.
Ashbery's remarks, in 1966, comparing the didactic intention of the "committed poets" of the time to the imaginative gaiety of Frank O'Hara are equally applicable to his own work. He says of O'Hara's poetry that it
has no program and therefore cannot be joined. 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: in a word, it does not attack the establishment. It merely ignores its right to exist, and is thus a source of annoyance for partisans of every stripe.
Even more pointedly, Ashbery dismissed O'Hara's "committed" critics:
It is not surprising that critics have found him self-indulgent . . . the poems are all about him and the people and images who wheel through his consciousness, and they seek no further justification. . . . Unlike the "message" of committed poetry, [O'Hara's work] incites one to all the programs of commitment as well as to every other form of self-realization--interpersonal, Dionysian, occult, or abstract. Such a program is absolutely new in poetry.
That last phrase--"absolutely new"--is not entirely accurate: Whitman said repeatedly that he was not preaching a program, but actively urging his readers to find their own form of self-realization. Yet Whitman's messianic voice turned his first readers into devotees rather than seekers of personal authenticity. What is new in O'Hara and Ashbery is their refusal of an earnestly didactic tone. Describing O'Hara's poetry, Ashbery staked out his own territory as well--states of consciousness, demotic language, a democratic inclusiveness of mention:
Surrealism was after all limited to the unconscious and O'Hara throws in the conscious as well--doesn't it exist too? Why should our unconscious thoughts be more meaningful than our conscious ones . . . ? Here everything "belongs": unrefined autobiographical fragments, names of movie stars and operas, obscene interjections, quotations from letters--the élan of the poem is such that for the poet merely to mention something creates a place for it, ennobles it, makes us realize how important it has always been for us.
This, too, is a Whitmanian program: mentioning something to create a place for it is surely the justification of Whitman's catalogues. But the New York postwar writers, from O'Hara to Koch to Schuyler to Ashbery, extended the things mentioned beyond what Whitman had thought possible.
numerating his New York friends--Frank O'Hara, Barbara Guest, and James Schuyler--Ashbery adds the explanation of their subsequent group title: "We poets were dubbed, somewhat to our surprise, the New York School of Poets; this was the idea of John Myers, whose gallery published our pamphlets and who thought that the prestige of New York School painting might rub off on 'his' poets." Many of the group--O'Hara, Koch, Schuyler--are now dead; as Ashbery recalls that "school" he ironizes his nostalgic language with the ridiculous eighteenth-century periphrasis for a school of fish:
been the time before this, when we all moved
in schools, a finny tribe, and this way
and that the caucus raised its din:
punctuation and quips, an "environment"
like a lovely shed.
Among the poets of the New York School, Ashbery has been the most influential in opening up new possibilities for the American lyric. He has done this by enlivening the page with diction of a startling heterogeneity; by being more broadly allusive than any other modern poet, including Eliot; by being boyish and amusing while maintaining emotional depth; by finding a gorgeousness of imagery rare since Stevens; and by taking headstrong risks that have endangered whole books (notably The Tennis Court Oath), but which have paid off in original forms of narrative and fable.
Ashbery was formed (after his education at Harvard and Columbia) not only by his ten years in France speaking French and reading French literature; not only by his many years as a writer of brilliant criticism of new painters and sculptors and graphic artists; but also by the relatively marginalized poets that he referred to in his Norton Lectures as the "other tradition," including John Clare, Laura Riding, and Thomas Lovell Beddoes. The sentences of prose writers--not only Proust but also Henry James and Gertrude Stein--have entered the repertoire of his sinuous syntactic style. And at its best it all adds up--when the reader gets used to it--to something strange, exhilarating, cheeky, and moving.
All these qualities can be seen in "When I Saw the Invidious Flare," one of the many apocalyptic poems in the new book. In his seventies, the speaker wishes to sum up, before the curtain falls, the life he has lived. The summary is voiced (as is usual with Ashbery) in a mix of humorous plaintiveness, surrealist imagery, and giddy idiom. As a Stevensian "invidious flare" ("like a blaze of summer straw, in winter's nick," in The Auroras of Autumn) lights up the evening sky, the speaker reflects that he has had love, yes, but love has become tedious; that life is, alas, more lonesome after choosing one's path than before; that he has been devoted to learning, yes, but is about to be expelled--or worse, suspended in an afterlife--from the school of life; that (like Thomas Aquinas) he may find at the end that all his learning seems but straw; that the vicissitudes of life have turned his fellow Keatsian chameleons into coarse warthogs; and that his style of writing is criticized from both left and right:
When I saw the invidious flare
and houses rising up over the horizon
I called to my brother. "Brother," I called
"why are all these chameleons teasing us?
Is it that they are warthogs, and the gamekeeper is napping?
What I'd give for a pint of English bitter,
or anything, practically anything at all.
How lonesome it seems when you're choosing,
and then, when you have done so, it seems even more lonesome.
We should have got out more during the last fine days.
Now, love is but a lesson, and a tedious one at that.
Do they think they can expel me from this school, or, worse,
suspend me? In which case all my learning will be as straw,
though there'll be a lot of it,
I can assure you."
Evening waves slap rudely at the pilings
and birds are more numerous than usual.
There are some who find me sloppy, others
for whom I seem too well-groomed. I'd like to strike
a happy medium, but style
is such a personal thing, an everlasting riddle.
This is the first part of the invidious evening, setting the stage of the Last Days, warthogs and all, and with nary a sedative in sight (not even the appropriately named English bitter). In the second half of the poem, even the invidious flare wants to be allowed to regress to its more dulcet youth, when it was merely a light at the end of a tunnel. The speaker reflects on the short time left before everything goes up in flames, before (in a linguistic skid to the ordinary) he reaches the end of the alphabet. Earlier decades were supported by knowledge attained from elders--but how many poems or paintings do we have telling us what it is like to live into our seventies or eighties? What will the looming letters W and Z threaten us with? But, he sententiously counters in a rapid drop into religion-speak and therapy-speak, the fair positives of our youth are, after all, not all there is to life; we need to know our negativity as well. The terminal flare (now a speaking part) opens the scene:
Then I saw the flare turn again.
Help, it said, I want to get out of this
even more than you do. I was once a fair twinkling light
at the end of a tunnel, then someone wished this on me.
Help me to put it behind me please.
Turning from the blaze to the counterpane
I saw how we are all great in our shortcomings, yea,
greater because of them. There are letters in the alphabet
we don't know yet, but when we've reached them
we'll know the luster of unsupported things.
Our negativity will have caught up with us
and we'll be better for it.
But does old age have to be so brutal, so wasteful, so bestial, so destructive? Why, the speaker asks, are we behaving like the men whom Circe turned to swine, exhibiting our warthog selves? Nonetheless, because he must, he assents to the status quo, in a heaping-up of participles enacting the exaggerated theatricality of apocalypse:
keep turning on lights, wasting electricity,
carousing with aardvarks, smashing the stemware.
The poem closes by surveying ending and beginning in one gaze: the comic scene of degradation is followed by an unexpectedly mild signing-off, since rhetorical tantrums, however authentic, cannot (at least not in Ashbery) last forever. There is, after all, something to be said for the Last Days:
These apartments we live in are nicer
than where we lived before, near the
I may be mistaken (I have been so before) in my synopses, since Ashbery--with his resolve against statement bearing the burden of a poem--would always rather present a symbolic whole than offer a propositional argument. Still, I have offered these synopses to show that Ashbery does make sense if we can tune our mind to his wavelength--something I am not always able to do, but which is exhilarating when that precarious harmony of minds is reached. Ashbery suggests, he does not assert. His readers are left to skate along the polished surfaces of his text, seeing images, bumping into pieces of diction, flashed at by paradoxes, speeding through tone after tone, as the atmosphere of the poem darkens or brightens.
At the close, ideally, the kinetic transfusion has happened, and we feel its complex effect--in Stevens's terms, "an abstraction blooded, as a man by thought." For myself, I relish Ashbery's many spectacularly imagined versions of the promised end: its invidiousness, our futile thrashing under its glare, our elegiac mourning within ironic glimpses of ourselves participating in a parodic farce, heading toward that "tank of carnivorous eels." Most of all, I relish (in a poem called "Interesting People of Newfoundland") the poet's serene--and paradoxical, parodic, insouciant, and minatory--epitaph for his generation:
We were a part of all that happened there, the evil and the good
and all the shades in between, happy to pipe up at roll call
or compete in the spelling bees. It was too much of a good thing
but at least it's over now. They are making a pageant out of it,
one of them told me. It's coming to a theater near you.
I wish that all the poems in Where Shall I Wander were understandable to me on the spot, because I trust Ashbery's power to give me a fresh look at life. But I remind myself that time brings about not only the fading of failed experiments but also the wonderful clarification of passages that were perplexing on first appearance. After all, sophomores now believe that they can read The Waste Land. And the sententiously reproachful American banalities about "accessibility" have been roundly refuted by Ashbery himself:
Critics of poetry tend to use the word as a club to beat the poets they don't like, [saying] that modern poetry is out of touch with its audience, and nobody reads poetry anymore because poets for some reason refuse to be accessible. Alas, the world is full of poets who are accessible in that definition and yet nobody reads them either. Could it be because they insist on telling the reader something he or she already knows?
Whenever an undeniably original poet appears--Mallarmé, Eliot, Moore, Milosz, Ashbery--no matter how alien the content, or how allusive the lines, readers flock to the poems. "Accessibility" needs to be dropped from the American vocabulary of aesthetic judgment if we are not to appear fools in the eyes of the world.
Helen Vendler is a contributing editor at TNR.