Normalizing John Ashbery
Jacket (Australia), Issue #2 (online), December 1997, 14 pp.
Artists are no fun once they have been discovered.
John Ashbery, “The Invisible Avant-Garde” (1968)
Has success spoiled John Ashbery? By no means, as I shall suggest below, if we are talking about such recent volumes as Can You Hear, Bird (1995). But the current discourse on Ashbery’s work is something else again. Now that academic critics, who, not so long ago, dismissed Ashbery’s poems as so much obscurantist doubletalk, have been forced to concede that the Ashberyan mode doesn’t seem to be going away, that, on the contrary, its particular modulation of voices and performative registers speaks to poetry audiences from Austria to Australia, a new explanatory narrative is in the making. According to this account, there’s nothing so unusual about Ashbery, who, so it now seems, has all along written under the sign of Eliot or Stevens, leaving Modernism firmly intact as the movement or epoch of choice, the movement from which no later twentieth-century poet (not even Ashbery) can actually deviate.
A recent example of this “business as usual” narrative is James Longenbach’s essay “Ashbery and the Individual Talent,” published in American Literary History (Spring 1997) and reprinted in Longenbach’s Modern Poetry After Modernism (Oxford, 1997). One of this essay’s chief aims is to dismantle the “breakthrough narratives” critics like myself have misguidedly perpetuated–narratives, that is to say, that claim that there is, for better a worse, a genuine difference between modernist and postmodernist poetics. Ashbery, Longenbach argues, is “the least oppositional of poets.”  And again, “However distinctive his own poems have seemed, Ashbery has stayed resolutely in motion, refusing to choose sides in the debates that preoccupied so many American poets [e.g., Olson, Ginsberg] after modernism” (ALH 105). Unlike Olson, for example, Ashbery did not reject “closed verse,” often using such elaborate traditional metrical forms as the sestina and the pantoum.
“To make the case for any sort of Ashbery “breakthrough” (and, in a larger sense, postmodernist breakthrough) Longenbach argues, can result only from positing a “weak modernism,” a modernism whose poetics are more coherent, explicable, and accessible than Ashbery’s curiously opaque and resistant structures. But modernism, far from being thus “weak,” Longenbach reminds us, was itself enormously oblique and complex, and conversely, Ashbery’s poems–at least some of them–are more unified and amenable to normal explication than the poet’s early defenders had claimed. Indeed, Ashbery’s poetic is best understood as what he himself called, in the poem “Clouds” from The Double Dream of Spring, a “worried continuing” (ALH 107). True, many of his poems, especially in the notorious Tennis Court Oath (1962) but also in the case of the often “tedious” Flow Chart, resist interpretation: of “Leaving the Atocha Station,” Longenbach writes: “The power of the poem stems from the fact that, like a Jackson Pollock painting, it is basically unacceptable. For all of its aura of the prodigious feat, “Leaving the Atocha Station” might be the warped but inevitable conclusion of a debased New Critical aesthetic: the poem that does not mean, but is” (ALH 114). But, much to Longenbach’s relief, there are Ashbery poems like “Decoy” that make fairly straightforward sense. He admits that “Ashbery himself is oddly resistant to any preference for hismore explicable poems” (ALH 119), but this is not to say that the reader can’t prefer those that are, as Longenbach himself so evidently does.
A related argument about Ashbery, but one that does acknowledge the poet’s “difficulty”, is Vernon Shetley’s essay in a book ominously called After the Death of Poetry: Poetry and Audience in Contemporary America (1993). In Shetley’s scheme of things, the three significant American postwar poets are Ashbery, Bishop, and Merrill; he has no use for “language poets” on the one hand, “new formalists,” on the other, and, among contemporaries, finds little to praise beyond scattered lyrics by such poets as Robert Hass, David Ferry, and Alan Shapiro. Given these parameters, he is forced to conclude that “Poetry is dead. With that judgment I have no interest in arguing, if what it means is that poetry is unlikely in any foreseeable future to regain an audience like the one enjoyed by Tennyson, or even by Frost. But it seems to me that poetry still has an enormous job of work to do, posthumously, as it were. If nothing else, poetry’s death should haunt the rest of the culture.” 
But why, in this depressing narrative of poetic loss, is Ashbery given a whole chapter? Like Longenbach, Shetley is relieved to find that “Even though Ashbery shared with the Beat and Projectivist camps a disaffection from the reigning academic modernism, he rejected both the progessive model of literary change they espoused and the heroic self-image they cultivated” (VS 107). The reference here is again to verse form–Ashbery’s writing of sonnet, sestina, cento, pantoum, etc. Indeed, Shetley notes with some satisfaction, “Ashbery did not appear in the leading antiformalist anthology, Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry” (VS 107).
This last sentence, I must admit, took my breath away when I read it because it is of course incorrect. Ashbery is very much included in Allen’s anthology (he gets ten pages), even though in 1959, when The New American Poetry was put together, he had published only one book, Some Trees (1956). Far from being a casual error, Shetley’s is highly revealing: it indicates that he has never so much as leafed through Allen’s groundbreaking anthology.
What this particular clinamen tells us is that, like Longenbach, Shetley can only deal with an Ashbery safely sanitized and removed from his own poetic milieu.
And yet, as Shetley, unlike Longenbach admits, there is that nagging “difficulty.” How to account for that? “The difficulty of [Ashbery’s] poetry,” Shetley explains, “arises in great measure from [the] decision not to write the sort of poem [Robert] Lowell was writing, not to produce within the paradigms offered by the New Criticism.” (VS 104). Again, a curious account of poetic evolution, implying as it does that one can simply decide, as an act of will, to write a certain kind of poem. Ashbery, I would posit, could no more have written a Lowell poem than, say, a Mayakovsky one, his sensibility, ethos, and culture being so different. There is, to begin with, the issue of Ashbery’s particular gay sensibility, which would hardly have been at ease in the documentary confessional mode of Life Studies. But since Ashbery’s problem was “that of finding an audience at all” (VS 109). he evidently decided to begin (again, a conscious choice is posited) “in the earlier avant-garde fashion of assembling a coterie” (VS 109). Fortunately, he soon moved beyond that coterie, returning, at least in some of his poems like “Soonest Mended,” to a more assimilable romantic lyric mode. But, Shetley admits, not entirely assimilable: “Ashbery’s romanticism remains tempered by the presence in his poetry of all those moments that trouble and question the pure voice of the lyric singer. The poetry becomes, then, imbued with a kind of second-order pathos, in which its difficulty–its moments of fragmentation and opacity–reads as an index of the frustrations of the poet’s situation” (VS 132). And there it is–the rueful recognition that, as Longenbach argues, postmodernist poetry, far from being any sort of breakthrough, is an attenuated modernism–sometimes, as in Ashbery’s more accessible poems, quite successful and moving, but more often “frustrating” in its index tothe larger poetic failure of the late twentieth century.
The critique of “breakthrough” narratives of postmodernism –now quite common in academic discussions of twentieth-century poetics–strikes me as curiously ahistorical. It is, to begin with, impossible to write sympathetically about one’s own moment in poetry without positing a “breakthrough” of sorts. When Pound first praised “Prufrock” and campaigned for The Waste Land, of course he exaggerated the poems’ novelty: fifty years after the fact, scholars can find many connections between Eliot and Tennyson just as there are important links between Pound and Browning. Within fifty years of Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads of 1798, readers noted that in fact the poetic language of Wordsworth’s later poems was not all that different from the despised “poetic diction” of Thomas Gray and other later eighteenth century poets. And now that language poetry has been around for twenty years, we can see that the call for the elimination of the lyrical ego must be understood as a reaction to the “tell it like it is” mode of the seventies’ workshop poem rather than as a rejection of “voice” as such.
Thus, when Longenbach urbanely argues that, after all, Ashbery is very much a poet in the Eliot tradition, he is ignoring the plain fact that he himself did not come to Ashbery until quite recently. Indeed, Ashbery attained almost no recognition prior to the publication of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, published in 1976 when the poet was fifty. It was only after the relatively accessible title poem of this volume became well-known, that the Establishment started to come around. And even then, it had to do so by erasing such troubling volumes as The Tennis Court Oath (1962), and, in Longenbach’s case (see ALH 114), As We Know (1979), Shadow Train (1981), and that loose baggy monster Flow Chart (1991). Indeed, the “acceptable” poems, both for Longenbach and Shetley almost always come from The Double Dream of Spring (1970), which contains the lyrics like “Soonest Mended,” most readily assimilable to a Modernist poetic.
Breakthrough narratives, it is true, are always forced to simplify the work of the past from which the new text deviates. I plead guilty to this charge in my own references to Eliot or Stevens in The Poetics of Indeterminacy (1981). Of course the symbolic structure of The Waste Land is not as easily understood as I implied in that study, but I stand by my original distinction between the “logic of metaphor” (Eliot’s phrase for St. John Perse) of The Waste Land and the much greater indeterminacy of the Ashbery lyric in question, “These Lacustrine Cities” from Rivers and Mountains (1966). Indeed, however great the debt Ashbery owes to the “modernism” of Eliot, one would never, as I suggested in my book, mistake an Ashbery poem for an Eliot one. Nor can one take short extracts from a given Ashbery poem (Longenbach does this with reference to passages about poetry like the lines from “Syringa” that begin “Its subject / Matters too much and not enough”) and treat these extracts as containing within themselves the “meaning” of the poem in question.
Take one index to the difference between Ashbery and Eliot: the use of citation. In Eliot’s case, we know (or can find out) where the citations come from; we can assess the degree of irony in the poet’s use of Nerval’s “Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie” or in “The Game of Chess’s” version of Ovid’s tale of Philomela. But in Ashbery’s poetry, it is usually impossible to identify the citation, and, even when we do, such identification doesn’t necessarily help us to understand the poem. For example, even when we know that the source for “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” is Chuck Jones’s cartoon Duck Amuck of 1953 (see Shetley 125), the poet’s attitude to that cartoon world is by no means clear or consistent. Indeed, in Ashbery, almost everything sounds like a citation, sounds like something we’ve heard before or read somewhere–but where? And that is of course one of the main features of Ashbery’s poetic: living at a moment when one’s language is so wholly permeated by the discourses that endlessly impinge on it, a Keatsian image complex, or even an Eliotic distinction between citation and invention–the distinction, say, between the Dantean epigraph (“S’io credesse. . .”) of “Prufrock” and the later reference to those lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows”–is felt to be no longer possible.
Consider the opening poem in Ashbery’s most recent volume, Can You Hear, Bird? (New York: Farrar Straus,1995):
“A Day at the Gate”
A loose and dispiriting
wind took over from the grinding of traffic.
Clouds from the distillery
blotted out the sky. Ocarina sales plummeted.
Believe you me it was a situation
Aladdin’s lamp might have ameliorated. And where was I?
Among architecture, magazines, recycled fish,
waiting for the wear and tear
to show up on my chart. Good luck,
bonne chance. Remember me to the zithers
and their friends, the ondes martenot.
Only I say: What comes this way withers
automatically. And the fog, drastically.
As one mercurial teardrop glozes
an empire’s classified documents, so
other softnesses decline the angles
of the waiting. Tall, pissed-off,
dressed in this day’s clothes,
holding its umbrella, he half turned away
with a shooshing sound. Said he needed us.
Said the sky shall be kelly green tonight. (p. 3)
Is this an example of the “worried continuing” Longenbach finds the trademark of postmodern poetry? Are the references to omens, signs, and horoscopes a belated version of the Madame Sosostris sequence in The Waste Land? Or might “A Day at the Gate” more properly read in the context of other poems of the nineties– Charles Bernstein’s “Dark City,” say, “or Clark Coolidge’s At Egypt?
Ashbery’s “poem beginning with ‘A’” (the lyrics in Can You Hear, Bird are arranged in alphabetical sequence by title) displays Ashbery’s characteristic mix of the casual and the ominous: “A Day at the Gate” recalls titles like “A Day in the Country,” or “A Day at the Farm.” But “a day at the gate” more specifically invokes the gates of heaven or hell–at the least, some sort of threshold experience, a waiting period that marks the entrance to something else or a period of supplicancy, of hoping to enter an unspecified realm. The “loose and dispiriting / wind” of the opening lines is, Longenbach might say, a familiar enough Romantic image, but here nature and culture are in conspiracy, the wind taking over “from the grinding of traffic” and blowing in “clouds” of polluted air “from the distillery.” The omens now become increasingly absurd: “Ocarina sales plummeted,” the poet tells us as if he were reporting a major Wall Street disaster. But the ocarina, an inexpensive musical wind instrument otherwise known as “sweet potato” because of its shape, is hardly a sales item to be reckoned with in the financial pages.
What is the tone of this stanza? In Eliot, interpretive possibilities are enormous but I don’t think anyone would argue that the The Waste Land valorizes the “heap of broken images, where the sun beats, / And the dead tree gives no shelter,” or that the poet is on the side of the “young man carbuncular . . . A small house-agent’s clerk, with one bold stare.” But in Ashbery, parody is so thorough-going that one cannot be sure how the speaker (and hence the reader) positions himself vis-à-vis those ominous signs. The landscape seems at once frightening and funny and one pictures the poet telling a friend what a crazy day he’s just had, without being overly upset about it. “Believe you me it was a situation / Aladdin’s lamp might have ameliorated”: the poet laughs at himself, wishing he could get out of whatever it is he has to do. The next three lines invoke a scene in the physician’s waiting-room. We all know the picture: the view of high-rises outside the window (architecture), the magazines and dusty tanks of “recycled fish,” the apprehension of waiting to find out about one’s electrocardiogram or CAT-scan (waiting the wear and tear / to show up on my chart”). “Good luck”: it’s what we tell ourselves In the waiting-room.
But here further clowning takes place. Good luck” modulates into the French bonne chance and the absurdity of “Remember me to the zithers / and their friends, the ondes martenot.” “Zithers” recalls such names as “Smithers”; metonymically, moreover, zither sounds fit nicely with those operatic “ondes martenot.” And then “Only I say” presents the poet in the posture of cartoon Tiresias, a prophet who declaims bathetically: “What comes this way withers / automatically,” the rhyme “zithers”/ “withers” underscoring the futility of grand pronouncements. For what is it that is prophesied in the midst of this fog? The charts (medical charts? horoscopes?) now transform into “an empire’s classified documents”: perhaps the waiting room is really at the C.I.A. or other spy agency. Signs continue to be taken for wonders like that “one mercurical teardrop.” The “angles of waiting,” in any case, are finally interrupted by the appearance of a “he”– “Tall, pissed-off, / dressed in this day’s clothes, / holding its umbrella, he half turned away with a shooshing sound.” The adjective sequence “Tall, pissed-off” is an Ashbery signature: the conjunction of neutral description with colloquial characterization, the shift of linguistic codes further compounded by the curious use of “its” where we would expect “his,” the umbrella thus belonging to the day, not the person. And it is also characteristic of Ashbery that there is no way of knowing who the “tall, pissed-off” man with the umbrella, who “half turned away / with a shooshing sound” might be. “Said he needed us. / Said the sky shall be kelly green tonight.” Something, it seems, is about to happen, but the adjectives “shooshing” and “kelly green” undercut the line’s ominous potential.
“A Day at the Gate” is vintage Ashbery in its refusal to make clear whether its “theme” is serious or comic or both. And that, the poet–a poet whose skepticism is finally much more radical than was Eliot’s– suggests is how life is. True to its title, “A Day at the Gate” doesn’t comment on the disclosure that occurs or doesn’t occur on the day in question; rather, it presents what such a paradigmatic day feels like. The poem taps into our own experience, allowing us to fill in the blanks in a variety of ways. Which is not at all to say that this poem doesn’t mean but is.
Let’s come back a moment to that rhyme “zithers” / “withers” in the third stanza. Both Longenbach and Shetley argue that Ashbery is more “traditional” (and hence, in their view, superior) to his “open form” counterparts represented in Donald Allen’s New American Poetry. But the one-time rhyme, embedded in the internally rhyming and alliterating “Only I say: What comes this way. . .” is designedly comic and parodic, just as are Ashbery’s centos, pantoums, and sestinas. Indeed, the poems in Can You Hear, Bird are closer in tone to Alfred Jarry, Ronald Firbank, and the early Auden than to Eliot or Stevens or the Romantics.
In criticizing the “contingency” of Ashbery’s more disjunctive poems (e.g., in The Tennis Court Oath), Longenbach compares Ashbery to Elizabeth Bishop:
“In Bishop’s ‘In the Waiting Room’ a child realizes for the first time that selfhood is an arbitrary social construction, that experience as it comes to her has no coherent order or meaning. Bishop does not embody this realization in a poem that is ‘consequently’ incoherent or arbitrary: she remains perfectly comfortable with a simple narrative, aware that its shape is, like all systems of meaning, arbitrary but nevertheless useful” (ALH 113).
And Longenbach contrasts that “usefulness” to the “potential danger . . . an aesthetic of embodiment rther than description” poses for Ashbery. But “useful” for what purpose? My own sense is that Bishop’s waiting room, where the child, coming upon the photographs of “black, naked women” with “horrifying” hanging breasts in the pages of the National Geographic, comes to the recognition that “you are an I, / you are an Elizabeth, / you are one of them”), is not nearly as interesting or suggestive as Ashbery’s, with its recycled fish and fear of unknown “charts.” Bishop’s drive, in this case at least, toward meaningful statement is characteristic of modernism in its late phase. But Ashbery’s poem is doing something else–establishing, for one thing, a different relationship between writer and reader, a relationship that looks ahead to the poetics of “embodiment” as practiced by such later poets as Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews, Maggie O’Sullivan and Karen MacCormack. Ashbery’s is thus less a “worried continuing” than the recognition that, in the words of “Syringa,” “All other things must change too.”
 James Longenbach, “Ashbery and the Individual Talent,” American Literary History, 9, no. 1 (Spring 1997): 105. Subsequently cited as ALH.
 Vernon Shetley, After the Death of Poetry: Poet and Audience in Contemporary America (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993): 191. Subsequently cited as VS.
 The anthology has such great historical significance that the University of California Press is reprinting it with a new introduction by Allen in 1998.
 Elizabeth Bishop, “In the Waiting Room,” The Complete Poems 1927-1979 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984), p. 160.