Wednesday, December 15

Re: The Ashbery Question

Recently over on the New Poetry discussion list, Mike Snider raised a series of questions whose purported aim was to get “fans of John Ashbery” to explain their admiration. The discussion the questions provoked is worth looking at in its entirety; one response, by Andrew Epstein, struck me as being among the most lucid appreciations of Ashbery’s poetry I’ve come across in some 25 years of reading the poems and reading people writing about the poems. It’s reprinted here in its entirety, with Andrew’s kind permission.


I guess Mike Snider's pointed questioning (gentle baiting?) about Ashbery's work provoked me to want to defend Ashbery, or my enthusiasm for Ashbery, which I guess was his intention in the first place. As others have said, the criteria Mike throws out there for why one would call oneself a fan of a given poet seem a bit strange, almost intentionally hilarious and exaggerated -- are there really people out there who actually rush up to their friends and excitedly recite ANY poet's poems in unison? In public? Without blushing? Who weep loudly enough upon reading a poem on public transportation that passers-by notice and beg them for the name of the poet? The whole question sure feels like a loaded one, although it seems that Mike is just genuinely curious about why people might like this poet. But something about it feels designed to bring up what Martin Stannard called the tired, decades-old "Ashbery question" -- that is, the premise behind it seems to be that: a) Ashbery is mostly just a spewer of undifferentiated randomness and nonsense, b) that those who profess to like his work don't REALLY understand or enjoy what they so loudly celebrate, and c) this is proven by the fact that they couldn't name a single piece of his that sticks out in their memory, since his poems are all indistinguishable, forgettable, and incapable of producing a powerful aesthetic response. Implicitly, this line of questioning hints that being a fan of Ashbery is some kind of a sham, since it implies that when pressed, no reader of Ashbery could ever really justify their liking of his work the way a lover of Frost or Yeats or whoever could.

But the problem is that this is just not a fair picture of how a pretty broad spectrum of people -- ranging from die-hard Ashbery fanatics to readers/writers of decidedly non-Ashbery poetry -- respond to Ashbery's work. I have had many conversations about Ashbery with poetry readers of various stripes, and can recall debating, on more than one occasion, which book of his is the best ("Do you really think Houseboat Days is better than The Double Dream of Spring? No way!") and distinctly remember people marvelling at the genius of particular poems. Come to think of it, just last week, before Mike's question, I was talking to a friend of mine, a well-known young poet who writes in much more traditional, formal vein, about the unspeakable greatness and brilliance of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror and Three Poems, with this friend admitting how it simply took his breath away when he recently revisited those works again.

Although I'll admit that, for me, the later Ashbery can often leave something to be desired (and perhaps especially in the memorability department), if you are truly in search of memorable, peak Ashbery, you should return to the series of extraordinary books stretching from Some Trees (1956) to Houseboat Days (1977). There are so many excellent poems -- too many actually -- in those books to single out. But I for one am much happier living in a world that has in it poems like "Two Scenes," "The Instruction Manual," "Some Trees," "The Painter," "Our Youth," "They Dream Only of Amerca," "These Lacustrine Cities," "A Blessing in Disguise," the wonderful long poem "The Skaters," the entire volume The Double Dream of Spring ("The Task," "Soonest Mended," "Spring Rain," "Evening in the Country," etc. etc.), the 3 remarkable long prose poems of Three Poems (especially his tour-de-force, "The System"), just about every poem in the collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, "Street Musicians," "The Other Tradition," "And Ut Pictura Poesis is Her Name," "Syringa," and many many others.

Although the very basic features of Ashbery's style obviously means that his poems don't naturally lend themselves to being recited in their entirety, I remember memorizing, quite easily (and happily), the terrific, unforgettable poem "The One Thing That Can Save America" when I took an oral exam for grad school some years back, and can still recite fragments without having thought about doing so for a long time. More importantly, given the distinctive qualities of Ashbery's work, I, and many others, could recite from memory countless amazing, striking lines from so many Ashbery poems -- lines which are so often his stunning openers and closers ("These are amazing: each / joining a neighbor, as though speech / Were a still performance"; "These lacustrine cities grew out of loathing / Into something forgetful, though angry with history"; "Our Youth / of bricks -- who built it? Like some crazy balloon / When love leans on us / Its nights"; "They are preparing to begin again: / Problems, new pennant up the flagpole, / In a predicated romance"; "I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free. / Elsewhere we are as sitting in a place where sunlight / Filters down, a little at a time, / Waiting for someone to come"; "The summer demands and takes away too much, / But night, the reserved, the reticent, gives more than it takes"; "it is finally as though that thing of monstrous interest were happening in the sky / but the sun is setting and prevents you from seeing it").

Even just typing up these lines leads me to wonder: have the people who simply can't fathom why so many readers become Ashbery fans really gone back and read these poems lately? Does one really need to have a conversation about whether Ashbery is capable of writing poetry filled with rich imagery, music, the play of sound and sense, whether he is capable of writing memorable, individual poems when he writes endings like these:

I plan to stay here a little while
For these are moments only, moments of insight,
And there are reaches to be attained,
A last level of anxiety that melts
In becoming, like the pilgrim's feet.
("The Task")


For this is action, this not being sure, this careless
Preparing, sowing the seeds crooked in the furrow,
Making ready to forget, and always coming back
To the mooring of starting out, that day so long ago.
("Soonest Mended")


Our question of a place of origin hangs
Like smoke: how we picnicked in pine forests,
In coves with the water always seeping up, and left
Our trash, sperm, and excrement everywhere, smeared
On the landscape, to make of us what we could.
("Street Musicians")

At the very beginning of his first book Ashbery writes: "We see us as we truly behave: / From every corner comes a distinctive offering ... Everything has a schedule, if you can find out what it is." I've never forgotten those lines, never stopped being bothered and haunted by them, nor by many of the great Ashbery poems that were to follow. For many, many readers (on both sides of the fictive "great American poetry divide," I should add), Ashbery has again and again fashioned what Stevens called "the sounds that stick." And a lot of us are extremely grateful for that.

© Andrew Epstein, 2004

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