Friday, March 25

A Good Friday

For the past five or six weeks I have been slowly reading John Ashbery’s “Selected Prose”. It’s not the kind of book I’d sit down and read from cover to cover to the exclusion of all else. For one thing, I always seem to have several books on the go at the same time, and sometimes forget one or two of them and when I come across them under a pile of more recently arrived stuff try and remind myself to remind myself to resume reading where I left off. Sometimes I don’t, usually. Other times I get wonderfully absorbed, of course. I this week decided I wanted to re-read some George Eliot, and hauled a pile of things out: “Middlemarch” and “Silas Marner”, and “Daniel Deronda” and “Felix Holt”. When I say “re-read”, I mean the first two. I’ve never read the other two, but there’s always a first time. Anyways, I’ve just read “Silas Marner” over the last two days. It’s good to be reminded how good these things are. Reader, I almost cried when Eppie said she wanted to stay with old Silas, and not go to the big house and live with the big shots.

When it was all over and folk were living more or less happily ever after, and I’d composed myself with the aid of a fresh salad and a cup of tea, I turned to Ashbery for a change
of tone. (I’m having one of those reading days. I don’t want to go out and have Easter with people. Holiday days always seem to be a good reason to barricade the doors and shut the hordes of holiday-makers out.) I love reading Ashbery’s reviews and articles. He’s always very readable, even when he’s writing about someone or something you don’t have a clue about, or perhaps have never heard of. Perhaps it’s not surprising to find him writing interestingly about an artist, but it’s a delight to read about an artist and feel that you’ve encountered the paintings and, at the best moments, the artist in person. This was the case this afternoon, reading his piece about Louisa Matthiasdottir. Who? Quite. And Ashbery is always saying things that seem to reflect back on his own poetry and which, to my mind at any rate, never cease to throw light on those vague areas of art process you think you know about but which too often elude you:

It is this ambiguity, projected not for its own sake but as a means of getting more content into the picture, that is one of the major rewards of Louisa Matthiasdottir’s painting. At a time when artists tend increasingly to consider single aspects to the detriment of wholeness, she reminds us that it is not only possible to be and to do many things while being oneself and doing one thing, it is also impossible not to.

He is also, of course, great on poets. Here he is on John Wheelwright, an American poet I’ve heard of but have never read:

….. the difficulty proceeds less from arcane allusions than from Wheelwright’s peculiarly elliptical turn of mind which convolutes and compresses clarities to the point of opacity. There is no more point in doing one’s homework first than there is with the Cantos: one has to wade in, grasping at what is graspable and letting the extraordinarily charmed lyrical climate accustom one little by little to the at first blinding brightness or darkness…..
It is best perhaps to start with the shorter, seemingly easier poems, not because they are actually much easier but because they contain some of his most radically original poetry unburdened by a narrative or dialectical function. This one, “Familiar,” is from Dusk to Dusk:

O, gilded Boston State house; O, gleaming Irish hair!
I saw Lady Bountiful taking a walk in clean sunlight.
A goodlooking girl, if only she hadn’t lips for eyelids.
I thought I saw two persons, and I got all mixed up.
You see, it was this way … Lady Bountiful was modestly, even stylishly
dressed in two dimensions. But Lady Bountiful’s shadow
had three dimensions, and crept behind like
pickpocket stenches of belches of Welch wenches.

Even while beginning to wonder what this is all about, one notes its crotchety sense of conviction. I think it succeeds, just as I think the very next one, “Stranger, doesn’t:

(While Boston blossoms into one brown rose)
how is it, Girlie, on your way
from Saroyan’s whimsy play
Over the Hills and Far Away
to suffocate black incubator babies
that you carry a tall walking stick
embossed with the many-breasted Artemis;
but rubbed on its prepuce nether tip?
Did you lift it from my steady’s mother?

In both cases I am unsure of what is being said, but also fairly sure that it doesn’t matter, that we are in the presence of something as dumbfounding as Cubism must have seemed to its first spectators and as valid as it now looks in retrospect.

Ashbery and his New York pals have always had this open and liberating quality about them. Sometimes, for sure, one might suspect a certain disingenuousness about a profession of not understanding something, but it strikes me as by the by, because it’s largely irrelevant. And anyway, what are those poems about? It’s the being somewhat amazed by them that is important, and Ashbery reminds us about this time and time again – what he elsewhere calls “the surprise that is the one essential ingredient of great art.”


There is a good piece (I might say "a great piece". Yes, indeed) by Clive Allen on Ashbery's prose, and his latest book of poems, at Litter.

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