Near the end of Breezeway, what had seemed like only the latest amiably anodyne Ashbery offering, I read the following lines, only to be reminded of just how many steps ahead of me this wily old master always is:
After three decades of futility, you have to ask:
Who was this composer?
Was he known for anything else?
Is the mere survival of the notes justified,
or do we all survive this way, more or less?
Upon passing through the book as through a tangle of non sequiturs, off-color one-liners, intimate conjunctions, indeterminate pronouns, and other now-familiar Ashbery-isms, I found myself wondering if this poet’s late work could survive on the basis of its style alone. For the cumulative effect of the book, and so much of Ashbery’s later work, seems to come at the expense of any particular effect. The style is the effect, long familiar to Ashbery’s devoted readers, a style that both promises and constantly defers the condensation of words into meaning. But will the style survive if no single poem survives as a necessary example of it?
You might say that Ashbery’s style has been an inversion of Wallace Stevens’ dictum: poetry must resist the intelligence almost unsuccessfully. Sometimes this coy refusal is grating. That was my reaction: is there anything else? Until the lines quoted above struck me as anticipating, and even answering, my unease. Will these lines survive? Who cares! Posterity be damned; if they came more frequently in poem-sized chunks, would the sweet distractions of this book be any more justified? It is enough that the work survives in the mind as a mood, for such is the mode of survival of, say, my grandfather, and all the other important things, more or less.
Just as Ashbery’s words resist condensing into determinate meaning, so too does his poetry rarely condense into single poems. A regrettable consequence of this is the frustratingly common critical response to Ashbery’s disarming work, which begins by listing its characteristic stylistic features, then demonstrating them with quotes and snippets gleaned from the book, and finally topping it all off with vacuous praise. If no single poem swaggers on the imagination, a reviewer has a good excuse to replace the messy business of interpretation with bland description.
The spirit laureate of the past 60 years deserves better, but when so few of the individual poems stand out from the labyrinth of the book it is easy to see why so many people have recourse to this mode of “appreciation.” We hold on to the aspects of his work we are familiar with, those that we have come to love, yet they rarely abide together in any single poem.
Another way of coping with our difficulty interpreting Ashbery is to claim that the poems are “about themselves,” or “about poetry”; in other words, to attribute to his poems a special, novel self-consciousness. This is usually a cop-out. Poems have been commenting on themselves for centuries, if not millennia, so to claim this as a mark of distinction for Ashbery is to miss the point. Which is not to say that Ashbery does not comment on his own work; fatuous observations sometimes divulge a grain of truth, and in one of the most memorable poems in the book, “A New Desire,” Ashbery offers the following wry self-appraisal:
Not so good anymore,
post avant-garde. How’s that?
Find anybody still puzzled up.
This is Ashbery’s funny way of granting that he knows we are used to him by now; this is nothing new. The acknowledgment precedes a headfirst dive into his usual shtick:
You’ll have to pay for brunch- I’m too excited.
Milk and carrots from the editor at
my beloved Sierras!
We get two “stanzas” of such nonsense before we return to the reflective mode:
There goes another one belies
any significant pores
I gloss these lines as an elaboration of the preceding stanzas. If “significant pores” are openings by which we access meaning, then they give us a false idea of the poem. This is a declaration of meaning evaded. Of course, it might not be.
The most poignant strain in Ashbery’s writing, one that has suffused his work for all of his more than 60-year career, treats this evasion of meaning as if it were a stubborn fact of the universe, not just a condition of certain poems. Ashbery is most lucid whenever he stops to consider whether anything—words, experiences, life—will cohere. The condition is stated in “Clepsydra” (1966):
This means never getting any closer to the basic
Principle operating behind it than to the distracted
Entity of a mirage.
In “Grand Galop” (1975), he elaborates the dilemma:
Someone is coming to get you:
The mailman, or a butler enters with a letter on a tray
Whose message is to change everything, but in the meantime
One is to worry about one’s smell or dandruff or lost glasses–
If only the curtain-raiser would end, but it is interminable.
But there is this consolation:
If it turns out to be not worth doing, I haven’t done it;
If the sight appalls me, I have seen nothing;
If the victory is pyrrhic, I haven’t won it.
We may be too distracted or self-absorbed to receive the wisdom that would resolve everything into a meaningful whole. On the other hand, as long as we are unsure of its import, we may be more comfortable in our ignorance. Still, it is a lukewarm consolation at best to be told that you’re better off not knowing.
The trope of the letter reappears in “The Cloud of Knowing” from Breezeway:
We all have to fail
at end of days, yet not so pronto
she said. And lo, it was like a breeze of vacuum
beyond the stiff perimeters already granted us.
A whole goes. And then a whole lot.
Most valuably, no one writes a letter
to those sprinting up ahead, who wouldn’t read it anyway.
In Dodge and other windswept places
the evening news took pride of place.
Death is nigh, and the speaker is none the wiser; not, however, because the letter that would answer everything has failed to arrive. Instead, there never was a letter. Nothing hangs together, but the “stiff perimeters” of life, the daily distractions (“the evening news”), are still preferable to death’s vacuum.
I prefer this mode, openly addressing our inability to make things hold together, to its complementary poetic instantiation enacted in so many slapdash disjunctive poems. There is a poignancy in acknowledging our inability, not just humorously displaying it. The specter of “it” haunts the poems of Ashbery, and his moral is that “it” is never to crystallize our experience, that whatever might serve that purpose will never arrive, or was ignored, or missed because of our distraction; with the further suggestion that we be aware of the pleasures of distraction and conscious of the possibility of a disappointing cohesion, that whatever “it” is it might not be worth knowing.
In the meantime, we make do with such pleasures as the day may offer. Among these I include the verse of John Ashbery, Breezeway in particular.
John Tamplin is a freelance writer and translator from Louisville, KY.