Quick question: do you prefer Ashbery early or late? OK, that’s a trick question, since Ashbery has returned, in his late poetry, to the fast and loose writing of The Tennis Court Oath, albeit with a completely different flavor (more anon), after a vast and much celebrated middle period. I think most would agree, however, that there are at least two distinct flavors to the huge body of poetry Ashbery has written, which for simplicity’s sake I am calling “early” and “late”. If you troll around a little bit on the web you’ll find that a lot of folks agree that they’re not as sure of the degree of value of the late work as of the early work. And the late work begins at And the Stars Were Shining.
Although the volume that followed it, Can You Hear, Bird, contained some great poems that echoed the early work, the direction that Stars took has held to the present day (including, in a curious prose excursion, Girls on the Run). In the title poem of And the Stars Were Shining Ashbery casually drops the phrase: “the child prostitutes plied their trade”, a phrase that I cannot imagine, interpret or slant in any way that ceases to be repugnant. Given that it is a long poem, and that I failed to engage with it (having loved, above all, his long poems in the past), it was the first time that I glimpsed Ashbery as funneling the world into a consciousness the whole purpose of which was to construct texts. Or, to quote a line from Elective Infinites, from Quick Question, the new collection, “Process was the only real thing that happened.”
Now, it is true that the artists I admire most, consistently produce beauty regardless of what is going on in the world, who do not allow any considerations outside of art to mar the purity of their art. That is because I believe art, at its best, is parallel to the world. Not better, not superior, but parallel. Moreover, at its best, art cleanses the eyes so that one can see the world all the more clearly. Being parallel is not a substitute, a diversion or an escape. It is an aid, a supplement or a bonus. It is the world that matters. But there is an edge to the late poetry of Ashbery that sometimes pushes beyond this humble parameter toward the border of the gratuitous.
It could be my own failing (and Lord knows, as someone who is writing a poem every day this year I would not want to be compared to Ashbery). I have a similar problem with some of de Kooning’s later paintings. While I can’t think of a modern painter I admire more a great many of his abstractions after about 1967 seem to wallow in freedom. Ashbery does not seem to be embarrassed by his richness (the poem Etudes Second Series in his new collection notwithstanding). And why should he? Never being one to make many concessions to the reader, why should he make any now, at the age of 85? Hasn’t he earned the right to wallow in poetic freedom?
Yes, but he’s been doing it for so long now.
I have dutifully bought every book of poetry he has brought out beginning with Flowchart because his riches have enlarged my life more than any other living writer. But every volume beginning with And the Stars Were Shining has failed to rise to the heights of books that came before. It is the same Ashbery, sure, but the whole flavor has changed. Just look at Flowchart—froth upon froth of language. Poetry should be useless and incomplete in the senses that Bataille used the words—one should not be able to appropriate art to a useful end product as in the ordinary world of work (apart from the practical reality of offering the book for sale). But published poetry should never be gratuitous. Flowchart cannot be appropriated into the useful world, but it does not verge on the gratuitous, as Girls on the Run does. Be drunken, as Baudelaire advised, but don’t expect everyone to take a keen interest when you are ‘lost in an underperforming text’ (Far Harbor).
For over twenty years now I have asked myself if the failing is mine, and maybe it is, but I have finally resigned myself to it. It is clear to me now that Ashbery has resigned himself too, and it is doubtful there will be any more surprises. As he writes in Northeast Building, from the new collection:
The runner is already here,
has been for some time, awaiting instructions.
If it was my turn I’d go, but since that is
out of the question, I’ll merely keep my council,
looking for some converted to preach to.
Other poems seem to comment on his work. Puff Piece seems to be a confession. Referring to his “smirched muse” he writes: “And when I pulled it out of my pocket I thought surely all this has been done before.” But when he heads out, “tall in the saddle” for “ a clean-named place” I can’t feel a genuine enthusiasm. The Northeast Building stanza, quoted above, sounds more real to me.
Elsewhere in the new collection more or less wry lines seem to address Ashbery’s critics: “Let it mean something”; “Now that wasn’t so easy, was it?” apparent nods to the common criticisms that he is either meaningless or too difficult. But when he suggests in You What? meeting in a “fuzzy argument [that] comes to some fanciful verbal frottage or tegument” I feel like replying, let’s not. I miss the lucid Ashbery.
But I can’t stay mad at him for long. Even his throwaways are brilliant. I’ve read that Ashbery often keeps first drafts. He understands that one need not sweat blood over every poem. Sketches can be beautiful, and some poems are just right dashed off. Ashbery has often joked about his process. Having his poetry quoted to him might provoke a response of incredulity, like, ‘Wow, did I write that? I have no recollection.’ And it’s hard not to admire how lighthearted his late poetry is. Ashbery is a little boy at heart (a little boy with the literary brain of a genius), and I love that.
There are some good ones in Quick Question, beginning with Homeless Heart, the only prose poem in the collection, and one of the shortest prose poems he has written. The title itself is beautiful and the poem is so poignant, so perfect, a little gem. I’d give away 5,000 pages to have written a hundred words like that.* It may be that the way to such a brilliant short poem has been difficult for Ashbery, who has always excelled at long poems. I’m reminded of Philip Guston’s comment that painting is “a long, long preparation for a few moments of innocence.” Not Beyond All Conjecture is one of his shortest, and most delightful.
All of the poems in Quick Question are, as the title suggests, short. The ones I like most, such as A Modern Instance, are clustered in the middle of the book. In that poem, as in many others, “weird issues short out what sense orders for us.” Clarity of image is a beautiful thing, no doubt about it, but clarity of content, of meaning, is a little harder to come by. Ashbery has made a game of this his entire career, but he has never had a lighter touch or a more humorous attitude to it than in this book. I don’t expect him to ever stop, and that is deeply inspiring.
Years ago when I was endeavoring to get some of my artwork seen, an artist I knew who never made anything suggested that it was hubris to add one more drawing or poem to the heap. The world was glutted with them. Somehow, I am always answering her and always will. Even though I know damn well that wildflowers don’t need an excuse to exist. Tell a mockingbird you’ve heard it all before. And anyway, “whatever stops playing is the enemy of the incomplete.”**
* My friend Sue loves this poem too. Listen and find out why.
** Tango and Schottische by John Ashbery