Tuesday, March 13, 2007


It’s worth noting that the continual appearance of new books of John Ashbery’s short poems has not resulted in the same complaints that “he’s not doing anything new” or “he’s simply repeating past triumphs in comfortable forms” that used to greet the somewhat similar short books published by Robert Creeley toward the end of his life. My counter-argument here has been that it makes no sense to complain that somebody who has changed the world of poetry forever – something I believe both Ashbery & Creeley have done – doesn’t continue to forge such changes ad infinitum. Each wrote the poems he personally needed to have written & when the world of verse shifted to accommodate this new thing, each kept on writing the poems he personally needed.

One reason for the variance between the reception Creeley’s books got and the one that Ashbery is continuing to receive today, however, has little to do with either author directly, but rather is a register of their somewhat different audiences. Although John Ashbery has been a relentlessly innovative author, he has also long been a favorite of Quietist critics (and to some degree of Quietist poets), especially championed by Harold Bloom, the great white whale of the academy. These more conservative readers value Ashbery, but they don’t especially value the new. In this way, they actually avoid the little trap that post-avants sometimes fell into with regards to Creeley, but their own position is as contradictory as any, a problematic that was crowned when Ashbery was given all the Official Verse Culture awards in 1975 for Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, a work that can only be described as a vicious satire of the very people who celebrated it. So the question remains: what is it you value in reading John Ashbery, if in fact you don’t value the new?

That’s a thought that has been haunting my reading of Ashbery’s latest book, the beautiful but slender A Worldly Country, just out from Ecco, reduced these days into being an imprint of HarperCollins. Just 76 pages of poetry with a detail from a Jane Freilicher painting for its cover, A Worldly Country could hardly be more beautiful, nor the poetry it contains more accomplished. John Ashbery may turn 80 this year, but there is no sign that he’s lost any of his inventiveness or wit, or that the ear has gone flat or any of the other possible maladies that can – and too often do – beset older poets.

One possible suggestion towards an answer comes, it would seem, from Ashbery himself, in a poem that occurs late in A Worldly Country, entitled “So Long, Santa”:

You were good to us,
but we’ve got to think these things
out for ourselves, check in with you
later – why did I say that?
Not everything has to be
as big and full as earth.

After he found a million dollars in a slot
the boy persisted, dying without uncovering a lot.
It’s good to be painful
because it will come round again
and we won’t be ready:
Barbara Allen’s cruelty, the night wind
biting at scarves, pedestrians hurrying along.

And if I so longed for you as
to make the original millennial blush go away,
us back to our pets, things we had
to learn at school,
I’d be ashamed of my distance
from you, for being indispensable
at times and cures –
just getting the right thing right, for once.

After finishing everything up
I pay a formal call to the broker.
Sherry is drunk
and it will soon be time to think of the next set of circumstances.
Oh hell everything is that way,
this way, that way, twisted in the sun
of endurance –
the back way in then,
the assertion of formality without
a celebration next time.
That’s all any of us gets,
why I am happy with you, alone, just us.

Even here, there’s not a lot of form to this “assertion of formality,” the mere echo of a failed rhyme from circumstances to endurance (and before either, distance), the deliberate clumsiness of slot and lot. It’s good to be painful / because it will come around again / and we won’t be ready may be as good a rationale as any for the reiteration at the heart of structure, but it is worth noting what is being characterized here as formal: a call to the broker. The “real” world, it would seem, is just the opposite: everything is that way, / this way, that way, twisted in the sun / of endurance.

Contrast this with the book’s one moment of high form, the title poem literally on page 1:

Not the smoothness, not the insane clocks on the square,
the scent of manure in the municipal parterre,
not the fabrics, the sullen mockery of Tweety Bird,
not the fresh troops that needed freshening up. If it occurred
in real time, it was OK, and if it was time in a novel
that was OK too. From palace and hovel
the great parade flooded avenue and byway
and turnip fields became just another highway.
Leftover bonbons were thrown to the chickens
and geese, who squawked like the very dickens.
There was no peace in the bathroom, none in the china closet
or the banks, where no one came to make a deposit.
In short all hell broke loose that wide afternoon.
By evening all was calm again. A crescent moon
hung in the sky like a parrot on its perch.
Departing guests smiled and called, "See you in church!"
For night, as usual, knew what it was doing,
providing sleep to offset the great ungluing
that tomorrow again would surely bring.
As I gazed at the quiet rubble, one thing
puzzled me: What had happened, and why?
One minute we were up to our necks in rebelliousness,
and the next, peace had subdued the ranks of hellishness.

So often it happens that the time we turn around in
soon becomes the shoal our pathetic skiff will run aground in.
And just as waves are anchored to the bottom of the sea
we must reach the shallows before God cuts us free.

On the one hand, that of “So Long, Santa,” we see the formalism of the Quiet world proposed as a mode of solace, an ointment against pain. But in the title poem, the sullen mockery of Tweety Bird shows up right before a reference to U.S. troops, an almost sadistic view of the human slaughter our president thinks of as “spreading democracy” – the scent of manure indeed!

The cyclical imbalance between the forces posed in the book’s title poem is on target: Ashbery has benefited from keeping readers off balance & on guard in this manner for half a century. It’s the bad cop (here in the form of Tweety Bird) that makes his good cop seem so very sweet, yet without this malevolent twin, it might all be enough to cause some sort of insulin shock, or at least the nausea a child could get from licking all the frosting from a cake. The little parody of the departure scene at the end of “The Game of Chess” in The Waste Land is hardly accidental. And here also we see the cyclical (night, as usual) proposed as a balm to soothe the great ungluing of day.

The final four lines here are worth noting, first for the way the calculatedly bad grammar of the first couplet reinforces just how pathetic our skiff really is. Secondly for the dire pessimism that it all must all end in the shallows.

I’ll leave it to the more clinically minded as to whether or not Ashbery is intentional in his associations of form itself with depression, at least in its reiterative Quietest conception, tho that certainly is one possible reading. My own interest is in how well – and for how many decades now – John Ashbery has been able to manage this balancing act between two universes of readers who come to him with very different interests and needs.


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